Our View: Felon-voting effort a welcome show of bipartisanship
When unlikely allies appear together for a news conference at the state Capitol, one has to take notice.
Last week, Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, a Democrat from Minneapolis, and Sen. Dan Hall, a Republican from Burnsville, as well as Jerry Hertaus, a Republican from Greenfield, and Rep. Ray Dehn, a Democrat from Minneapolis, announced their support for the restoration of voting rights to 47,000 people who live in Minnesota but are unable to vote because they have felony convictions.
It was a remarkable event attended by people who often are diametrically opposed — Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, former convicts and county attorneys — but they stood in union for Second Chance Day on the Hill. The event was organized by Restore the Vote Minnesota, a coalition of more than 60 groups, ranging from public safety advocates to faith-based organizations and civil rights groups, all dedicated to returning the fundamental right of voting to persons with a criminal record.
In Minnesota, like most states, felons are eligible to vote only after they've completed all terms of their sentences, including parole, probation or conditional release. A bill sponsored by Rep. Tony Cornish, a Republican from Vernon Center, and carried by in the Senate by Champion, would allow felons to vote after finishing their prison sentences.
Jason Sole, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, was introduced as one of the 47,000 Minnesotans not allowed to vote because he has a criminal record. Sole fell into drugs and gangs as a teen, eventually becoming a three-time felon. Now a married father of three, Sole, 36, has 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," Sole said. "I have been subject to taxation without representation for far too long."
Perpetual punishment is clearly not what was intended for someone who has paid his or her debt to society. It's also an issue that transcends metropolitan-rural and racial divides. According to Restore the Vote Minnesota data, 65 percent of the state residents disenfranchised because of criminal records live outside Hennepin and Ramsey counties. Of those 47,000, Restore the Vote says 69 percent are white, 19 percent are black, 6 percent are Hispanic and 5.8 percent are Native American.
If the measure passes, Minnesota would join 13 other states — Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Utah — that allow felons to vote after being released from prison. Most felons are not hardened criminals as 75 percent have never served any prison time.
The bill also would clarify a confusing system of exactly when a felon's voting rights are restored. "I just think it makes common sense," said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, a Republican from Mazeppa who signed on as a co-sponsor of the House version of the bill.
One reassuring characteristic of this movement is that so many divergent groups are coming together. Liberals support it as a social justice issue. Conservatives see it as an example of taxation without representation. Law-enforcement officials see the restoration of voting rights as part of a person's rehabilitation. Faith groups see it as a necessary component of redemption.
It's our hope that this bipartisan effort succeeds and provides an example that the disparate groups in the Legislature can work together on other issues.