MINNEAPOLIS — On National Registration Day Tuesday, the group that successfully pushed the legislature to restore the voting rights for an estimated 55,000 Minnesotans with felony records celebrated the long-sought policy change.
It means that Minnesotans will be able to vote again upon release from prison, instead of waiting until the end of all probation, parole, or supervised release. Some will be able to vote for the first time in November's local elections.
"We have a large amount of people who were once told that they didn't belong in this democracy — that their voice didn't count, their voice didn't matter," said Antonio Williams, a member of the Restore the Vote coalition. "We now have those people saying, 'I'm here and I'm going to use my voice. I'm going to use my vote.'"
At the Urban League Twin Cities, DFL Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon awarded the Restore the Vote coalition the Medallion Award from the bipartisan National Association of Secretaries of State, which is its highest honor, for their work this legislative session.
The law took effect this summer, but advocates say the work of educating those impacted about their newly reinstated voting rights is just beginning. Simon said his office is working with the Department of Corrections to inform people who will soon be leaving prison, noting his recent visit to Stillwater Correctional Facility to speak directly to incarcerated people about the change.
"It's about a mindset. It's about preparing people but it's also about just making sure we can find those folks, those 55,000 people," Simon said.
Advocates are working in the community to make their case to newly enfranchised people that civic engagement matters. But that effort can be a challenge, members of the coalition said Tuesday, because there is distrust in government.
"We're doing everything we can to validate the folks that they do have this right and that they should use it, but that takes a lot of effort for folks who have pretty much been forgotten," said Wintana Melekin.
The new law faces a legal challenge from the Minnesota Voters Alliance, a conservative group that argues the legislature overstepped and doesn't have the authority under the state constitution to restore voting rights for people upon their release from prison.
It isn't the first time the issue has been before a court. Earlier this year, the Minnesota Supreme Courtbarring Minnesotans with felony convictions from voting until their sentence is complete was constitutional. The legislature soon responded by passing the new law.
Kaela Burl is newly allowed to vote because of the change. She's eager to do so and encourages others to do the same.
"I was nervous, but I'm excited," she said. "I'm ready for November."
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