Supporters of returning voting rights to Minnesota felons on probation continued to pick up powerful allies Thursday as they renewed their annual push for the change at the Capitol.
Minnesota First Lady Gwen Walz joined those pushing the measure, including new leadership at the Department of Corrections, making it the first policy issue she has publicly backed since moving to St. Paul.
"Until we are all equal and have equality none of us are equal and have equality," Walz said during the annual Second Chance Day on the Hill rally inside the State Capitol rotunda Thursday. "So today I'm here saying that we should travel this road together. We can accomplish a lot by telling our stories and by confirming our togetherness."
Minnesota is one of 22 states that strip voting rights from felons who are no longer in prison but are still on probation or other forms of post-incarceration supervision. Supporters say at least 50,000 Minnesotans would be able to vote if the law were changed.
The roster of speakers at Thursday's 11th annual Capitol rally showcased longtime advocates in positions of power: Sarah Walker, who cofounded the Second Chance Coalition and is now deputy commissioner at the Department of Corrections; state Rep. Raymond Dehn, D-Minneapolis, who acknowledged that he once rallied at the Capitol before taking office.
Terencio Safford, who only recently completed probation following a felony DWI conviction, told the crowd that until now, he would lie to co-workers, saying he had no interest in voting when the topic came up each Election Day.
"Some will tell you, 'Well, it doesn't change these numbers or it doesn't affect this group of people,' " said Safford, who now works in cybersecurity and is on the Second Chance Coalition's board of directors. "But I'm here to tell you that it changes lives."
Dehn's latest bill counts a half-dozen Republicans as cosponsors. At least one Republican senator also publicly declared support on Thursday.
"Giving people a second chance should not be a partisan thing," Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, told the crowd. "The past is the past, the future is the future. I believe in you. I believe in your future."
But the measure still faces resistance from key Senate Republican leadership, including the chairs of two committees through which the legislation must pass. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, in an interview this week described his colleagues as "not completely warm to the idea" and questioned the effectiveness of changing the law.
"I do respect the process and the people that care about this issue have thought about it for a long time," Gazelka said. "It's an issue that is not going to go away. It's just, what is the best place to land in Minnesota?"
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who chairs the Senate's judiciary committee, watched Thursday's rally from a balcony above the stage. Both Limmer and Gazelka have expressed doubts over whether new legislation would help reduce recidivism.
On Thursday, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi underlined ongoing support for the change among the state's County Attorneys Association since 2012.
"If someone wants to vote, that's a pro-social activity," Choi said. "They're wanting to be connected to their community, they're caring about who their elected officials are. And to encourage that I think is critical because that ultimately would lead to a stronger community and more public safety."
Election security debate
After speaking in support of felon voting rights Thursday, Secretary of State Steve Simon issued a dire warning about the federal election security money the state failed to access last year.
Appropriation of the funds, which must pass the Legislature, was part of a broader omnibus spending bill vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton at the end of last session. Minnesota, one of 21 states whose election systems were targeted by Russian hackers in 2016, is the only state that failed to use the money.
On Thursday, a bill that would release $1.5 million of the $6.6 million set aside for Minnesota passed a Senate elections committee despite calls from Simon to let the state use all of the state's allocated funding right away.
"We urgently need 100 percent of that authority," said Simon, who this week attended a classified intelligence briefing in Washington, D.C., with other secretaries of state. "Every day that goes by that we don't get this money that Congress intended for us for election security is a day that we put election integrity in Minnesota at risk for every voter."