There’s no better way to achieve a major change in Minnesota law than to build a bipartisan team of lawmakers as your allies. But for the activists working more than 12 years to restore voting rights to felons who have done their time, even that is not enough.
Minnesota has about 47,000 citizens who have left jail or prison but remain on post-release supervision — in some cases, for many years. They are not eligible to vote until they finish their term of probation, in the state with low incarceration rates but the fourth highest probation rates.
“We are disenfranchising so many people — entire communities where significant portions of people can’t participate in the process of making basic decisions about things that will impact their children and families,” said Sarah Walker, a lobbyist with long-standing ties to the voting restoration movement. Studies estimate one in six black men in Minnesota are ineligible to vote for this reason.
In April, the DFL-controlled state Senate attached the voting rights restoration to a larger package of election-law changes. Even though a handful of prominent House Republicans are also on board, including House Public Safety Committee Chairman Rep. Tony Cornish, its backers don’t expect to win in 2016.
“I’m not hopeful it’s going to get passed this year,” said Mark Haase, an attorney who has lobbied for the measure for years.
It’s because Republicans, who control the House, are divided. The ranks of opponents include Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.
“Our members got scads of e-mails against it,” said Cornish, R-Vernon Center. “We have a real hard time collecting the votes, plain and simple.”
The bill’s House DFL sponsor, Rep. Raymond Dehn of Minneapolis, pushed to pass it in 2013 and ’14, when the DFL controlled the Legislature. “At that time there were some Democratic members fearful of voting for it because of their re-elections,” Dehn said. He now believes “at least 95 percent” of House DFLers are on board.
“Technically, if the Republicans were allowed to vote how they wanted and the Democrats pulled the votes together, we would have the votes to pass it,” Dehn said.
Daudt’s opposition is a major factor. The speaker told a DFL lawmaker that he sees the potential for the law to change if activists can demonstrate growing support.
“It’ll happen. Some good things take time,” Cornish said.
At the same time, Walker said she sees the issue growing more polarized. In the last 14 months, a handful of GOP lawmakers who co-sponsored the effort withdrew support.
One was Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes. “There were some concerns, I heard from some constituents who were upset about it,” he said. “For the sake of avoiding more arguments and discontent, it was easier to pull off for now and learn a little bit more about it.”
In the meantime, a new generation of activists is mobilizing.
“This is a basic civil right,” said Wintana Melekin, an organizer at the Minneapolis group Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. “I will be fighting for this until it gets done.”