The Rev. Brian Herron of Zion Baptist Church in Minneapolis visited the state Capitol last week to urge restoration of voting rights to former felons immediately on their release from prison or jail.
It's a personal cause for Herron. In 2001, he abruptly resigned from his seat on the Minneapolis City Council, pleaded guilty to extortion and went to federal prison for more than a year. The fall was sudden for the council member who seemed to know everyone in his south-central Minneapolis ward.
"It was the most painful thing for me to not be able to vote," Herron said.
He said it wasn't until two years after his release that he was off probation, paid his fines and allowed back to the polls.
That process, outlined by current state law, can last years if not decades.
The DFL majorities in the House and Senate back legislation to eliminate the wait. The House passed the bill 71-59 last week. Its companion bill, sponsored by Senate President Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, is expected to pass soon. Gov. Tim Walz supports the move.
Supporters say that disenfranchising roughly 50,000 felons on parole or probation violates the core U.S. principle of no taxation without representation. They argue that many of the formerly incarcerated hold jobs, pay taxes and want to be involved in their communities.
Republicans overwhelmingly dislike the proposal, arguing that those who commit crimes, especially felonies, must face penalties.
"It matters to me. It matters to my family," said Zeke Caligiuri, a Minneapolis resident who spent 22 years in prison and now works in community outreach. He described the formerly incarcerated as "the people who do the blue-collar work."
Sandy Yancy Jr.of Minneapolis, a car salesman who served prison time and still can't vote, led off a Capitol news conference with House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, Attorney General Keith Ellison and Secretary of State Steve Simon.
Yancy said the bill would "leave none of us behind."
Elizer Darris, co-executive director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund, which pays bail for those who can't afford it, said he's campaigned and helped turn out voters. But he can't get that red "I Voted" sticker for himself because he's still on probation.
The issue of felon voting restoration has been pending at the state Supreme Court for more than a year. In December 2021, the court heard arguments on a lawsuit seeking to restore the voting rights of felons after lower courts declined. Ellison and Simon say it's within the Legislature's authority to change the law.
States vary widely in their approaches. In Maine, Vermont and the District of Columbia, felons never lose the right to vote even while incarcerated. In 21 states, felons can't vote while locked up, but they regain the right immediately on release, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
In 16 states, including Minnesota, felons lose their voting rights while locked up and during their parole or probation and often until they've paid fines or restitution. In 11 states, felons lose their voting right indefinitely for certain crimes or require a governor's pardon for the right to be restored, the NCSL reported.
In arguing for the bill, which would cost an estimated $14,000 to administer, Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope and the bill's sponsor, said on the House floor that the voting bans have "explicitly racist" histories dating back to slavery. The disenfranchised voters "are our neighbors, our friends, our daughters, our sons, our cousins, our mothers, our fathers. They have jobs, they help take care of their families, they pay taxes."
Yet released felons are "deprived of the foundational right to vote, the right to give them a voice and allow them to participate in our democracy," he said.
Frazier and other supporters said those who vote and have a stake in the community are less likely to commit new crimes.
House Republicans tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill multiple times. Rep. Paul Novotny, R-Elk River, wanted to require the payment of fines, fees and restitution before voting rights are restored. He said he understood the country's past civil rights violations but said, "I can't change the past but I hope to make Minnesota a safer future by doing this."
Frazier and House Majority Leader Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, called Novotny's proposal an unconstitutional poll tax. "Tying the ability to vote to paying fines, fees and restitution, that is a poll tax," Long said.
Novotny withdrew his amendment, saying he was saddened by the gross misrepresentation.
Rep. Harry Niska, R-Ramsey, argued against the bill, calling voting a sacred right.
"Crimes against society have levels of accountability ... that require in certain circumstances losing certain rights," he said. "That's why we incarcerate people so they lose their freedom because of certain things they have done that we as a society say are morally wrong. They're not just mistakes."
While Niska said "rehabilitation is a beautiful thing," he added, "We must not water down the price that needs to be paid for serious crimes."
Herron countered that the current system is "voter suppression."
"Any society that truly seeks justice, seeks redemptive practices," he said.