The voting rights of more than 55,000 formerly incarcerated Minnesotans were restored on Friday, as Gov. Tim Walz signed into law one of the largest voter expansion measures in the state in the last half century.

The new law comes after two decades of advocacy from a coalition of groups that argued prohibiting felons on probation from voting excluded them from being full participants in society, sometimes even decades after they were released from jail or prison.

"Today is a good day for democracy, today is a good day for justice and today is a good day for Minnesota," the DFL governor said on Friday, surrounded by supporters of the proposal as he signed it into law.

"We're a country of second chances, and we're a country of welcoming people back in, and the idea of not allowing those voices to have a say in the very governing of the communities they live in is simply unacceptable."

Minnesota joins 21 other states that give people with a felony conviction their voting rights as soon as they are released from incarceration. Democrats have argued that restoring voting is a criminal justice measure that will lower rates of reoffending. Republicans in the Legislature pushed back on the proposal, arguing that people who commit crimes must face penalties for their actions.

People affected by the new law will have their first chance to vote in special elections and this fall's municipal races. Previously, they had to wait until they were off probation and had paid all fines connected to their conviction.

For Jennifer Schroeder, that would have meant she had to wait until she was 71 years old to vote following her conviction on a drug charge. A judge sentenced her to one year in jail and 40 years of probation.

"This fall I'm taking my little boy to the voting booth," said Schroeder, who has been advocating for the change for years and named her son Chance for second chances. "I'm excited for him to see the process and to give him my red 'I voted' sticker."

Those stickers featured prominently on Friday as a symbol of exercising the right to vote.

"I voted. Those are two very powerful words, and I can't wait to seen tens of thousands of newly eligible voters in Minnesota pin this badge of democracy on their chest," said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, holding up a roll of the red stickers.

His office is working with the Department of Corrections to inform individuals affected by the new law of their restored right. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who carried the bill as a state legislator, said the public awareness campaign is an important next step.

"This is not the end, this is the end of the beginning, the next stage is to help people know what their rights are," he said. "There's a whole public awareness campaign that starts right now."

The new law comes on the heels of a major setback for activists, who spent years arguing in the courts that barring felons from voting violates the principle of no taxation without representation. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled last month that the law didn't violate the state's Constitution, kicking the debate back to the Legislature.

The proposal advanced quickly in the House and Senate this year after Democrats took control of state government in the fall election. Among that class of lawmakers — the most diverse in state history — were legislators who have pushed for the change for years and freshman members who first got involved in politics because of the issue.

"When the Legislature looks more and more like Minnesota, these are the results that Minnesotans should expect," said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan.

Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, sponsored the proposal as it worked its way through the legislative process. It's the first voting rights measure in an expansive agenda from Democrats to make it easier for Minnesotans to access the ballot.

Legislators are also advancing proposals for automatic voter registration, pre-registering 16 and 17-year-olds to vote and giving Minnesotans the option to join a permanent vote-by-mail list, rather than requesting an absentee ballot each election cycle.

Two states — Vermont and Maine — never take away voting rights from people convicted of a felony. Frazier said the conversation about whether the state should go further is going to continue, along with other criminal justice proposals advancing at the Legislature.

"We're going to take this as a step forward in the right direction," he said. "We're going to have the conversation."