Gina Evans, community outreach director for Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, has a "pretty long history of low-level criminal activity," beginning at 16, including check forgery, theft and drug possession. Evans, 42, of Stacy, Minn., went to prison three times and "never had the opportunity to vote."
Then she got sober, turned her life around, married and had children. In 2007, Evans received a letter informing her that she was off parole and could vote, which she did for the first time in the 2008 presidential election.
Now you can't keep her away from the political process. Evans brought her teenage kids onto the Minnesota Senate and House floors, where they met Gov. Mark Dayton. Her daughter watches televised debates. Evans is active in her kids' schools and is in the Restore the Vote movement.
If you haven't heard of this movement, I'm hoping you'll take note here. With 50 Tuesdays remaining until the Big Election, the Twitter effort — #restorethevotemn — seeks to create awareness around a troubling reality:
More than 47,000 adult Minnesotans who have completed prison sentences still are banned from the polling booth while on probation or parole. That makes ours one of the nation's most restrictive voting states.
More than 70 organizations representing faith groups across the spectrum, as well as public safety officials and human rights advocates, have formed Restore the Vote Minnesota to push legislators to change the law.
Currently, Maine and Vermont allow voting from jail or prison. Five states allow people who are on probation to vote. And 13 states, blue and red alike, allow people to vote when on parole or probation, "which is what we're proposing," said Mark Haase, a private practice lobbyist who coordinates the state's Restore the Vote coalition.
Haase offers many compelling reasons to support this process, not the least of which is the intent of our founding fathers.
"If people are going to be taxed, they should have a say in their government," Haase said. And that means everybody.
In a University of Minnesota Law Review article he wrote last spring, Haase noted that felony crimes have a particularly punitive impact on members of minority groups. Even low-level drug crimes can carry up to 12 years for a first offense and 20 years or more of probation. Minnesota's African-American disenfranchisement rate, he said, "is higher than former slave states such as Louisiana, Missouri and Texas."
Second, keeping people from voting does not keep us safer. "Individuals interviewed about losing the right to vote express a feeling of being an outsider," Haase said. "People who are engaged in their community, and who have social connections, are less likely to reoffend."
Third, this is a pay-it-forward proposition. The coalition is chock-full of faith groups from Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions, liberal to evangelical, "who don't want to only punish people," he said. "We want to welcome them back into the community. We want children to feel like their parents are included in the community, which will make them more likely to vote."
Even during this season of gratitude, it's easy to forget to be thankful for a basic democratic right such as voting. So let's give thanks and consider joining this campaign on behalf of those who can't — or who once couldn't.
"This is giving my children an understanding of how important their voice is," Evans said. "And now I have a voice, too."
Go to restorethevotemn.org and sign up for updates.
612-673-7350 Twitter: @grosenblum