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Bill that would restore right to vote for Minnesotans on probation, parole nears House vote

Lawmakers mull restoring felons’ rights to vote
Lawmakers mull restoring felons’ rights to vote 02:02

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A bill ready for a vote in the Minnesota House would restore voting rights for thousands of Minnesotans with felony convictions currently barred from the ballot box until their sentence is complete.

The state's current policy allows people to vote after they complete time for probation, parole or supervised release. The proposal, which advanced out of the House Ways and Means Committee on Monday, would allow Minnesotans to vote when they leave prison.

For supporters of the measure, the issue is simple: If Minnesotans are now longer incarcerated and live and work in communities across the state, they should be able to weigh in on the leaders elected to represent them. They also say it's an essential part of re-entering society.

"Data shows that when individuals have their rights restored, that they are more engaged in the community and they're less likely to reoffend," said Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope.

More than 50,000 Minnesotans are disenfranchised because of the voting rights rules for people with felony convictions, according to the ACLU of Minnesota. Twenty-one states have similar policies to what legislators are considering in St. Paul.

It's part of a push from newly empowered Democrats at the Capitol to expand access to the polls. They are also considering proposals to allow automatic voter registration and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds.

The issue is also before the Minnesota Supreme Court. More than a year ago, plaintiffs in Schroeder v. Simon argued before the court that felon voting restrictions violate the state constitution. One of those suing, Jennifer Schroeder spent just one year in jail for drug possession with a 40 -year probation period, keeping her from voting until she is 71.

There has been no ruling from the state's highest court, and the legislature could act before that happens.

Minnesota has lower incarceration rates, but more people on probation when compared to many states. In the Schroeder complaint, attorneys for the plaintiff highlighted that in 2016, Minnesota "had the seventh-highest supervised population in the country on a per-capita basis."

Republicans on Monday questioned if reforming probation should be the focus of change, not voting rights.

"As you walk out the door of prison, I'm not sure that that is exactly the time that most Minnesotans believe it is time to have those rights restored," said Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia. "Being on paper for 40 years -- there's an argument to be made there. But I do believe there is a reason to not have voting rights yet restored until that probation period is met."

The bill advanced on a voice vote, with Republicans voting no. The bill now advances to the House floor, though there isn't a vote scheduled yet.

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