Despite a broad coalition of backers and newfound bipartisan support, a measure to restore voting rights to felons as soon as they are released from behind bars once again appears doomed over reluctance from anonymous House lawmakers.
The “Restore the Vote” movement appeared to receive new life in the 2015 legislative session, after some Republican lawmakers, along with conservative and libertarian-leaning groups, joined the 13-year-old push for reform. The 47,000 Minnesotans now under post-release supervision are not allowed to vote until they’re “off paper” — a process that can take years. If passed, the measure would put Minnesota in line with 18 other states that grant voting rights to felons on probation or parole.
The bill breezed through Senate committees and awaits a floor vote there. But the House version has yet to receive a single hearing, even though Rep. Tony Cornish, who chairs the Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy Committee, is the chief author. Cornish, R-Vernon Center, can decide which bills his committee will hear, but has not taken up this one. The bill must be heard by Friday in order to remain viable.
“Not everybody’s comfortable with it yet, that’s all I can tell you,” said Cornish, who declined to say who opposed the bill. “Until everybody is comfortable having a hearing, I’m not going to force the bill down their throat,” he said. “But I’m looking forward to it if it happens.”
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he has not talked to the bill’s authors. He said he is not afraid of having the bill heard, though he acknowledged having fundamental qualms about it.
“Personally, I struggled a little bit with at what point has someone served their debt to society and at what point do we reinstate that right,” he said. “I think we ought to look at every side of it, and if there’s a real reason to do it, we should do it.”
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he supports the bill and believes it has bipartisan support in the Senate. However, he said he is unlikely to push for a Senate vote if he senses the House is not going to move on it.
“I’m not too interested in taking a vote and sending it to the House if they’re not going to do anything,” Bakk said.
In a speech Wednesday to the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton touted the bill’s bipartisan backers “for recognizing that we can bring all our citizens back into the embrace of this society.” He said afterward he believes the bill should make it to the floor.
“That’s what they got elected to do, vote one way or the other, and let people know where they stand,” Dayton said of legislators.
On a cold and blustery Wednesday, a dozen supporters from Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) rallied on the Capitol steps to renew their push. They would spend the remainder of the day lobbying lawmakers. Among the supporters was NOC voting rights organizer Navell Gordon, a felon who wants to change the law.
“I have a little past, but I’m mostly doing good out here,” Gordon said. “I have a daughter and I want to show her it’s good to get out here and vote. At the end of the day I’m out here doing good for my community, and voting is important to me.”
Rep. Raymond Dehn, a co-author of the measure, said there is a misperception that most felons are people of color living mostly in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. In fact, he said, only 9,000 of the state’s 47,000 felons who are unable to vote are people of color, and many live outstate.
“For the life of me, I can’t understand why they wouldn’t hear a bill who has a chief author who is the chair of Public Safety,” the Minneapolis DFLer said. “I can’t figure out why it hasn’t gotten a hearing.”
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, a former DFL lawmaker who has remained a vocal supporter of the measure, said he’s disappointed that the bill appears to be stalling, but suspects there is a reason why.
“If Tony can’t get a hearing, it’s because there are all sorts of hidden agendas in the Republican caucus and they just won’t let it come out,” Freeman said. “I’ve spoken with Speaker Daudt and I think his feelings are very heartfelt and he’s trying to work through the whole issue. … We moved a long way and I’m very pleased with the direction. If leadership in the House needs more time to process it, I understand the process.”
Cornish declined to say the bill is dead, adding, “nothing is dead until the last day.” Still, he added, “I just wish I could make everybody comfortable.”
Staff writers Ricardo Lopez and Patrick Condon contributed to this report.