Renee Brown-Goodell is not shy about introducing herself as a felon, a label she has carried without shame after spending more than four years in federal prison for a 2012 fraud conviction.
But it still stings that she was forced to sit out the past two elections: Her right to vote remains out of reach until she completes her post-prison supervised release.
“I’m out here and I’m expected to work, I’m expected to pay taxes and take care of my family and behave like a regular American citizen should behave,” Brown-Goodell said. “And yet I’m not a regular American citizen because you have stripped away my rights to be a regular American citizen.”
Minnesota is one of 22 states where felons cannot vote until they complete post-incarceration supervision, such as probation or parole. Brown-Goodell’s is the latest in a growing chorus of voices leading a renewed charge to change that, a move that could affect 50,000 to 60,000 Minnesotans like her.
She can now count among her allies Minnesota’s newly sworn-in statewide officeholders and key law enforcement leaders in addition to the advocates who have been lobbying for change for more than a decade. Supporters say restoring voting rights would be a crucial step toward helping felons reintegrate into society in a state with one of the nation’s highest rates of people on probation.
This latest push comes on the heels of Florida voters overwhelmingly restoring voting rights to more than 1 million felons. During his inaugural address last month, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon drew some of the day’s loudest applause when he called for broadening felon voting rights here.
“I just sense there is a real critical mass now around this issue, and it’s been a long time coming,” Simon said in a recent interview. “This is, to me, a basic fairness issue. It is a civil rights issue.”
Key obstacles remain
Rep. Raymond Dehn, D-Minneapolis, has been sponsoring legislation that would change the state’s felon voting laws since 2013, when Democrats controlled the Legislature but failed to muster enough bipartisan support to satisfy then-Gov. Mark Dayton.
Dehn’s latest effort counts six Republican lawmakers as co-authors. It would add Minnesota to the 14 states and the District of Columbia that automatically return voting rights to felons once they are released from prison.
North Dakota is one of those states. Since the 1970s, felons have been able to vote as soon as they are released from prison. “We have had no issues,” North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune this week.
But even with momentum this year, the idea faces significant headwinds at the Capitol.
Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said any legislation to restore felon voting rights would not be a priority for discussion in the Senate elections committee she oversees. Kiffmeyer, who was secretary of state from 1999 to 2007, described Minnesota’s policy as already being in the mainstream and pointed out that what Florida voters approved in November matches Minnesota’s existing law.
Kiffmeyer said the Legislature needs a “very, very high bar to justify changing” the law and doubts the measure would have sufficient bipartisan support in the Senate. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said he has yet to consider whether he would allow a hearing on the issue in his Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee but added that he is generally “leery of going in the direction of felon voting” and that any committee discussion would also need to include the opinions of crime victims.
“Minnesota has recognized and sent a very definite message in our public policy that if you victimize one of our innocent citizens and you’re caught and convicted, you will serve a penalty for it,” Limmer said. “And included in that penalty is a loss of your civil rights — which would include voting.”
Sarah Walker, who helped found the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition and Restore the Vote Minnesota, said underlining the original intent of the state’s founders creates a more persuasive argument for changing the law.
“They could never have anticipated that there would be this thing called probation,” said Walker, recently appointed deputy commissioner of the community services division at the Department of Corrections (DOC). “I don’t think the intent was that people living in the community, raising families and paying taxes should be denied the right to vote.”
The Second Chance Coalition is organizing its 12th “Day on the Hill” rally at the Capitol on Thursday, where Walker will be joined by state lawmakers, Simon and the DOC’s new commissioner, Paul Schnell, and others in calling for the restoration of felons’ voting rights after prison.
“When they’re out they can send a letter, they can stand at that City Council meeting or visit the office of a state legislator, but they can’t cast a vote for that person?” Schnell said. “It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around that distinction.”
State Attorney General Keith Ellison introduced a similar bill as a state lawmaker in 2006 and said he has since come to believe felons’ voting rights should never be stripped — as is the case in Maine and Vermont.
“We should just decouple the criminal justice system and the electoral system and the franchise altogether,” Ellison said. “Disenfranchisement is a form of civil death or banishment, which is sort of a medieval idea.”
Those calling for changing Minnesota’s law find urgency in a 66 percent spike in the number of Minnesotans on probation for felonies since 1996. Although Minnesota imprisons people at a low rate, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, Minnesota ranks among the top five states in community supervision.
Simon credits growing support for the measure to more residents knowing someone in that situation “regardless of where they live.” According to the DOC, more than 70 percent of Minnesotans on probation for felonies live outside of Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
Gov. Tim Walz said recently that he believed legislation should advance this session — even with issues like gun control and the state budget on lawmakers’ agendas in the coming months.
“My tendency is always, if these issues are important, they’re important now,” Walz said.
‘Raise the conversation’
Brown-Goodell, who is now living in Golden Valley and working public relations for small financial firms, expects her supervised release term to end in May. As that date approaches, she is growing more comfortable with the idea of using her voice and eventually networking with former inmates who could lobby for voting rights.
She began last month by bringing her story to a Minneapolis listening session hosted by Ellison, whom she once lobbied on tax policy when she was an investment adviser and he was a congressman.
“The time is so ripe to address these disparities,” Brown-Goodell said. “We may not get it all done, but we can certainly raise the conversation about it.”