A measure to restore voting rights to felons who have been released from incarceration successfully cleared its first committee hurdle Thursday backed by a broad coalition of support.

Dozens packed the hearing room in support of the bipartisan bill, authored by Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, that would change state law to allow conflicted felons to vote immediately after they’re released from prison or the workhouse, rather than when they’ve completed the terms of their probation or parole—a process that can take years, if not decades.

Although an effort years in the making--this year's push has seen new support from conservative and libertarian causes, bolstering GOP support.

Walter Hudson, vice chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Minnesota, said that prison inmates should be denied the right to vote, just as they should be denied a multitude of other rights, but that shouldn’t apply once they are released back into the community, he said.

“Participation in the political process conveys a sense of belonging and investment in the community which those seeking reconciliation ought to have,” he said.

Hudson said that just as it would be unreasonable to ban paroled offenders from constructive activities like attending church or finding a job, so is denying them the right to vote. Suggesting otherwise, he said, “Is somewhat like me banning peas and Brussels sprouts to my 6-year-old as punishment…I want him to engage in good, productive activities.”

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said prosecutors have a twofold interest in changing the law, not only allowing reintegration into the community, but adjusting the law would also ease the burden on elections officials and prosecutors in light of many felons on paper who attempt to vote, unaware that it’s illegal under current law. Determining whether they intended to break the law is difficult, he said.

Republican Sens. Scott Newman and Warren Limmer expressed some doubts about the bill, including Newman, of Hutchinson wondered about felons who don’t serve time, and under the law could be immediately allowed to vote following their conviction. Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy, also a backer of the bill, said that in 2013, 94 percent of convicted felons received some type of incarceration.

Limmer, a former corrections officer from Maple Grove, inquired why there were no crime victims in attendance, and wondered what they thought of the bill.

“I think the victim would say ‘I want that person to change so no one else has to endure what I had to endure,” Champion said.

Brian Riehm, a father who as a young men fell into drugs, landed in prison at age 19 and ultimately suffered the consequences of being unable to vote,

“I watched my parents vote, but my children never had the opportunity to see me vote,” he said.

Before Thursday, Demetria Carter kept her story secret from most people. The college graduate, Sunday school teacher and mother of two told the committee she lived a normal life until she descended into mental illness and drug addiction that landed earning a felony conviction and serving 78 days in the Hennepin County Workhouse and 10 years’ probation.  After her release, she’s done everything she can to put the past behind her.

“Restoring the right to vote to me and others like me is essential to restoring my human dignity,” she said. “I want to be an active part of my community because my life does matter.”

After being approved on a split voice vote, the bill heads next to the Senate Rules Committee. 

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