Voting is a right of all US citizens, so why are felons excluded after they’ve paid their debts to society? Some Minnesota lawmakers are fighting to get those rights back.
More than 53,000 people convicted of felonies in Minnesota, who have served their sentences and are paying taxes, taking care of their families, and participating in their communities, are not allowed to vote.
“We live in a society that says that if you do something, if you’re held accountable, and you do your time, you’re supposed to have the opportunity to now come out. You’re supposed to be reintegrated in the community. You’re supposed to have your rights back,” said Cedrick Frazier, Democratic member of the Minnesota House of Representatives.
And yet, it is illegal for people with felony convictions to vote after they’ve completed their sentences if they are still on parole or probation. Minnesota has the seventh-longest probation sentencing average in the United States. Restricting voting as a punishment has been proven counterproductive to criminal rehabilitation and to disproportionately affect people of color, especially Black communities.
While 13 states have expanded voting rights for felons, those rights often come with strings attached. In Florida, for instance, felons must pay all of their owed fines to be eligible, or they face jail time again. For many, it is not worth the risk, since the bureaucracy makes it difficult to know what fines they owe and when, and they just cannot be sure if they have satisfied all the requirements. Only a fraction of those eligible made it back onto the voter rolls for the 2020 election.
The right to vote has been deemed essential by the Supreme Court, and is also especially vital for people convicted of a felony in order for them to avoid re-offending and to truly reintegrate themselves into their communities, Frazier said, because elected leaders determine laws that affect every aspect of society, including taxes, employment, housing, and personal relationships.
Being convicted of a felony is a scarlet letter in Minnesota because of the obstacles the government puts in the way of finding proper housing and employment after a conviction is on someone’s record. Housing and employment are two major factors necessary for living a stable, crime-free life, according to the Center for American Progress.
Because of Minnesota’s history of voting disenfranchisement, those convicted of a felony are unable to have any input on the existence and nature of these constricting laws, and the cycle perpetuates.
In the 1860s, there were 75 crimes that fell under the definition of a felony in the state, and today there are 368.
“When you don’t have the ability to participate in society like everyone else does, it’s more likely that you’ll revert to things that may have gotten you into the situation in the first place. Not giving people the full extent and range of their rights, it puts them in a bad spot,” Frazier said.
“When people don’t have a say in who was elected and how those elected officials go about serving them and governing them, they do feel like they’ve missed a huge part of their life,” said David McKinney, staff attorney for ACLU Minnesota. However, he said, when the right to vote is restored, those convicted of felonies are able to participate in society to the fullest by using their valuable voices to help appoint officials with their best interests in mind. This prevents them from falling back into the prison system, he said.
What Is a Felony?
While many associate the word “felony” with society’s most heinous acts, the threshold of what constitutes a felony crime has been widely expanded, according to Minnesota’s constitution. In the 1860s, there were 75 crimes that fell under the definition of a felony in the state; today there are 368. A marijuana possession can result in a felony charge with a maximum of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Historically, these voting restrictions were enacted to suppress minority, especially Black, voices. In Minnesota, Black people make up only 7 percent of the state’s population but 36 percent of the prison population and 19 percent of those on probation, so voting restrictions disenfranchise the Black population is at 4.5 times the state average.
Frazier has authored a bill that would restore the vote, but it needs to be passed by Minnesota’s legislative branches before moving on to Gov. Tim Walz (D). Not only would the bill restore the vote for those on probation after felony convictions, it would also make it mandatory for the state to give an explicit notice to those on and off probation that their right to vote has been reinstated.
“There are over 50,000 folks that are on probation, there may be a few more thousand folks that are off probation but believe that because they have a felony they don’t have the right to vote, so they’re choosing not to,” Frazier said.
Restore the Vote Minnesota supports this bill, as does a collection of other groups who are taking steps to reinstate the right to vote for people convicted of felonies. Supporters include ACLU Minnesota, Council on Crime and Justice, League of Women Voters Minnesota, amongst many others.
“I think it’s incumbent upon the state to take steps to proactively let people know ‘You can vote now’ because they proactively disenfranchise and restrict them from voting,” McKinney said.