Once a felon has paid the debt demanded by society, he or she should once again be able to vote. That’s a basic, straightforward way to help ex-offenders return to normal lives and become contributing, productive citizens.
But in Minnesota, ex-offenders can’t legally go to the polls until they are off parole or probation. That should change. The state should deny voting rights while a person is incarcerated, but give those rights back when an offender is released to rejoin society. Though proposed legislation that would make that important change stalled at the State Capitol last week, it ought to be resurrected and approved as the legislative session proceeds.
Here’s why: “Restore the Vote” efforts have been underway in Minnesota for more than a decade. During that time, the call for reform championed by criminal justice advocates picked up significant bipartisan, conservative and libertarian support. Now groups like the Republican Liberty Caucus and Liberty Minnesota support the initiative, arguing that disenfranchising felons is akin to taxation without representation.
Restoring voting rights would be consistent with a new state law that went into effect Jan. 1. That statute makes it easier for Minnesotans convicted of low-level felonies — as well as juvenile delinquency and misdemeanors — to seal their records from the background checks often run by employers and landlords.
Under that new law, some former offenders can apply to have their records sealed two to five years after completing their sentences. Victims have the opportunity to weigh in on the request, and expungement of records is not guaranteed. Yet the law was passed to help ex-offenders get their lives back on track; the idea is that former felons who can secure housing and jobs are less likely to reoffend.
The proposed voting rights measure breezed through Senate committees and awaits a floor vote there. But the House version has yet to receive a hearing, even though Rep. Tony Cornish, a former police officer who chairs the Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee, is a chief author. Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said there are still some members of his caucus who are “uncomfortable’’ with the idea.
Prosecutors, though, have a dual interest in the reform. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, a longtime advocate of the change, said voting helps offenders’ reintegration into the community. And many freed felons already attempt to vote, unaware that it’s illegal. In fact, those kinds of mistakes contribute to the tiny number of voter fraud cases that have been identified in Minnesota.
Some 47,000 Minnesotans now under post-release supervision are not allowed to vote until they’re “off paper” — a process that can take years. That’s a huge number of people who are denied the basic right to vote.
Restoring voting rights would be the latest in a wave of similar criminal justice reforms across the country; 18 other states now grant voting rights to felons on probation or parole. Minnesota should join them.