March 29, 2023

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Senate moved Tuesday to restore voting rights to convicted felons as soon as they get out of prison instead of continuing to require them to complete their parole before they can cast a ballot.

The Senate approved the “Restore the Vote” bill less than a week after the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the state’s current restrictions and left it up to the Legislature to change them. Democrats behind the measure say it will help reintegrate former inmates — who are disproportionately people of color — back into society.

“We know that in the state of Minnesota right now we have more than 55,000 of our friends, our neighbors and family members who are not allowed to vote. They should have the right to vote,” Democratic Senate President Bobby Joe Champion, of Minneapolis, told his colleagues.

The Senate approved the bill 35-30 Tuesday night and sent it to Democratic Gov. Tim Walz for his promised signature.

Supporters of the bill said it took on an even greater urgency after the Minnesota Supreme Court last week rejected a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union, which had argued that the state’s restrictions were unconstitutional.

The high court’s ruling acknowledged that 1% of white people, 6% of Black people and 9% of Native American people in Minnesota could not vote in 2018 because they had been convicted of a felony but had not completed their parole. If the right to vote was restored upon release from incarceration, it said, those percentages would drop to 0.1%, 1.5% and 2%, respectively.

Twenty-one other states restore voting rights when people with felony convictions leave prison, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, including Republican-controlled North Dakota, Indiana and Utah. Some California lawmakers are pushing to allow felons to vote even while they’re still in prison, regardless of their crimes, as Maine, Vermont and the District of Columbia already do.

Champion said residents who would regain the right to vote are often people whom the courts have deemed safe for release, and that they’re working, raising families and paying taxes. He noted that groups representing prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers and crime victims support the bill, as does the state Department of Corrections.

“When individuals are connected to their communities and participating in pro-social activities, recidivism goes down, and the decision to do something to reoffend goes down as well,” he said.

Attempts by Republicans to weaken the bill failed, including one amendment to exclude people convicted of violent crimes and another that would have kept the requirement to complete parole in place at least for those convicted of child rape.

GOP Sen. Warren Limmer, of Maple Grove, disputed Champion’s assertions that probationary periods often run as long as 20 years in Minnesota. He noted that the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission around three years ago capped parole for most offenses at five years, with exceptions remaining for first-degree murder and rape.

Limmer told reporters during a break in the debate that felons should not regain their civil rights — in this case the right to vote — until after they’ve completed their full sentence, both their incarceration and probation. He also accused Democrats of getting weaker and weaker on criminals at a time when crime is already high.

“There are some offenders that have committed heinous crimes against innocent citizens. I don’t think the Senate understands that,” Limmer said. “Because this bill treats it as a one-size-fits all — all criminals get the same treatment.”

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