“Felon voting” sounds ominous, like an attempt by burglars and rapists to hijack an election. But in Minnesota, it poses a potent political and civil rights question: When should felons who are trying to rebuild their lives regain their right to vote?

People convicted of a felony lose that right as part of their punishment. The Minnesota Constitution denies the right to “a person convicted of treason or felony, unless restored to civil rights.” In Minnesota, such rights cannot be restored until the person has first completed all the terms of the sentence, including incarceration, probation and parole and supervised release.

The issue, which a conservative group once cited on a freeway billboard as the reason Minnesota was “#1 in voter fraud” (an unproven claim), was back at the Legislature this year. It was predictably volatile. The two sides could not agree on a compromise, so current law remains unchanged.

An advocates’ group known as Restore the Vote-Minnesota sought to restore voting rights when a felon leaves prison or jail, even if he or she is still under supervision. They argued that this will eliminate inadvertent illegal votes by released felons who don’t understand the law, help with felons’ transition to life in their communities and reverse a growing disenfranchisement of black males, who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.

Defenders of the current system, including Minnesota Majority, the organization whose political committee put up the “#1” billboard two years ago, says felons are “outlaws” who should not have a hand in creating laws “that the law-abiding live under.” Such voters would, they contend, have an interest in electing lenient judges and prosecutors.

‘Politics over good policy’

Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins, chairman of the House Elections Committee and a candidate for secretary of state, said opposition to the law change was too intense to meet Gov. Mark Dayton’s requirement that election-law changes be bipartisan. He said several meetings to try to bridge the gap failed. The bill had almost no Republican support and even some DFLers were doubtful.

“Felon voting” might also have provided the GOP with a potent issue in November’s battle for control of the Minnesota House. “I think people took politics over good policy,” said Sarah Walker, of the Restore the Vote coalition.

States’ policies are all over the map.

Vermont and Maine are at one extreme, allowing felons to vote even while in prison. Thirteen states restore rights after incarceration. Minnesota is among 24 states that allow voting only after parole and/or probation is finished. Florida, Iowa and Kentucky are among 11 states at the other extreme, with practices that make it difficult to restore voting rights even for those who have completed all the terms of their sentence.

Nearly 6 million cannot vote

A study for the Sentencing Project, which advocates reform in sentencing laws, estimates that the number of people denied the right to vote due to a felony conviction has surged with tough-on-crime laws. In 1976, 1.2 million Americans had forfeited their voting rights. By 2010, that number had soared to 5.9 million.

In more restrictive states, such as Florida, Kentucky and Virginia, the study estimates that more than 20 percent of voting-age African Americans are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction and their states’ tight restrictions on restoration of voting rights. In Minnesota that comparable number is 7.3 percent.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, representing the Obama administration, has asked the more restrictive states to loosen their rules as a civil rights issue. Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul has supported an attempt in his home state of Kentucky to ease felon-voting restrictions.

This unusual political alliance has given heart to Minnesota advocates for change. They vow to return to the Legislature next year.