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Bipartisan alliance wants to restore felon voting rights

ST. PAUL — Some of the state’s most liberal and conservative lawmakers are teaming up at the Capitol this year to support an effort that would allow convicted felons to vote once they leave prison.

ST. PAUL — An unusual alliance of some of the state's most liberal and conservative lawmakers at the Capitol this year are supporting an effort that would allow convicted felons to vote once they leave prison.

Under Minnesota law, convicted felons are only eligible to vote after they've completed all terms of their sentences — including probation or supervised release. Bills sponsored by Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, and Sen. Bobbie Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, would allow convicted felons to vote after finishing their prison sentences. It would restore voting rights to an estimated 47,000 Minnesotans.

On Thursday, Republicans and Democrats joined together at a press conference to tout the effort. Joining them were representatives from the Restore the Vote Coalition, which is comprised of more than 60 organizations that include public safety groups, churches and civil rights organizations.

Among those traveling to St. Paul to advocate for the legislation was Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman. As part of her job, she said she has worked with people enrolled in the county's drug court who are trying to turn their lives around.

"There are participants who want to be part of the community. They've got jobs, they have their kids back, their families back, they're paying taxes, but they can't vote. So they are disenfranchised form our community," Sonneman said.

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There are 13 other states that allow convicted felons to vote while on probation, including neighboring North Dakota. Advocates of restoring felon voting rights argue that the state's policies disproportionately impact its minority residents, with black men in the state being seven times more likely than white residents to have lost their voting rights.

Jason Sole is one of those people who cannot vote. As a young person, he got involved with drugs and gangs. Today, the 36-year-old is a criminal justice educator at Metro State University and a doctoral candidate. He's been on probation since 2006 and won't be eligible to vote again until 2026.

"Every November I am reminded of poor decisions I made when I was much younger, and despite my hard work and many successes, I am not fully a part of my community. I have been subject to taxation without representation for far too long," Sole said.

Some libertarian groups also back the legislation, arguing that there is a conservative case to be made in favor of restoring felon voting rights. Karl Eggers with Liberty Minnesota said the state's policies leave people who have served their time without a voice.

"How can they be taxed but not represented in state government and in federal government? That is exactly the opposite of what our country stands for," Eggers said.

What remains to be seen is whether the bill can win enough legislative support to pass this year. Advocates have tried unsuccessfully for more than a decade to get similar measures passed. Critics of the effort in the past have argued that losing voting rights is part of the punishment for crimes committed.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, is one of the bill's co-sponsors. He said the current system is extremely confusing when it comes to figuring out whether an individual is eligible to vote. He said restoring voting rights to felons would simplify the system.

"I just think it makes commonsense," he said.

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