Before she sat before a packed committee hearing Thursday, Demetria Carter kept her past a secret from nearly everyone.
The college graduate, Sunday school teacher and mom of two lived a normal life until a descent into mental illness and drug addiction nearly a decade ago landed her with a felony conviction and 78 days in lockup. She spent the next 10 years on probation and engaged with church and volunteering, but redemption hasn’t been easy to find. Though there are many aspects that can’t be changed, she said, there is one that can.
“Restoring the right to vote to me and others like me is essential to restoring my human dignity,” Carter, 59, told the Minnesota Senate Judiciary Committee. “I want to be an active part of my community because my life does matter.”
Bolstered by newfound support from Republican lawmakers and a coalition of conservative and libertarian-leaning groups, the push to restore voting rights to Minnesota felons immediately after their release from incarceration cleared its first hurdle of the 2015 legislative session.
The bipartisan bill, passed by the Senate committee and authored by Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, would put Minnesota in line with 18 other states that grant voting rights to felons on probation or parole. Under current law, the state’s 47,000 Minnesotans under post-release supervision are not allowed to vote until they’re “off paper” — a process that can take years.
The push to restore felon voter rights has been around sporadically since 2002 and in 2014 was renewed by a group of nonprofits working together as the Restore the Vote coalition. However, efforts in recent years have stalled.
This year, groups like the Republican Liberty Caucus and Liberty Minnesota have signed on, some under protest that banning felons from voting is akin to taxation without representation, in line with the principle that they’ve paid their dues and are due forgiveness.
The participation has coincided with more Republican co-authors and lawmakers who since have changed their position, including Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville. Hall, the son of a recovering alcoholic, said the current law has an impact on families.
“What does that do to the kids in the family where he served his time, but he can’t vote?” Hall said, wondering aloud if children believe they’re second-class citizens if their parents can’t vote. “I don’t want our society to be like that.”
Walter Hudson, vice chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Minnesota, said it would be unreasonable to ban paroled offenders from constructive activities such as attending church or finding a job, and so is denying them the right to vote. Suggesting otherwise, he said, “It’s 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. Voting not only allows offenders’ reintegration into the community, but many freed felons already attempt to vote, unaware that it’s illegal. Determining whether they intended to break the law is difficult, he said.
Department of Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy, also a backer of the bill, said in 2013, 94 percent of the state’s 15,318 felons received some type of incarceration. Two-thirds were in local facilities, while another third went to prison. Roy said while some see probation as a sanction, he views it as an opportunity to rebuild.
“We do a lot in this society to discourage and push people away from us …” he said. “The philosophy of giving them back the potential to be a good citizen with a vote is a message that is stronger than the actual results. It tells these folks, ‘You are still part of us. You are our neighbors, our friends and family, and we’re going to do the best we can to support [you].’ ”
Republican Sen. Warren Limmer, a former correctional officer from Maple Grove, asked 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.