A close committee vote means certain Minnesotans still can’t cast a ballot.
Under current law, a person convicted of a felony cannot vote while behind bars or out on probation or parole. Rep. Raymond Dehn (DFL-Mpls) sponsors HF951 that would allow a felon to vote upon release from incarceration.
On an 8-7 vote that crossed party lines, the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee tabled the bill Thursday.
Of the 34 bill sponsors, nine are Republican.
“We’re expecting them to be good, upstanding citizens. … One of the basic sort of impacts of being a good citizen is actually participating in our voting,” Dehn said. He said the issue is a statewide one with more than 60 percent of the estimated 50,000 people this would affect living outside Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
Elizer Darris killed a man when he was 15 and was released from prison in 2016. Now a community organizer, he is on parole until 2025.
“We can pay taxes, but we can’t vote,” he said. “We abide by the regulations, the ordinances and the laws created by lawmakers, but we can’t vote. We live within a representative democratic republic, but we can’t vote.”
Working on political campaigns and having engaged, by his estimate, more than a thousand people to participate in the political process, it dismays him that he can’t vote.
“I’m right here in the community with all of you … but I am invisible to society in one of the most fundamental ways of being a citizen,” Darris said. “I’m here to represent those of us who matter. Our voices matter, our communities matter.”
Rep. Brian Johnson (R-Cambridge), the committee chair, said he had a problem with the bill based on Article 7 of the state constitution which says a felon “shall not be entitled or permitted to vote.”
Minnesota has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, preferring to use things like probation and community service to punish lawbreakers, rather than prison time; however, Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center) noted the state ranks fourth-highest when it comes to probation length and that inmates in three states are allowed to vote.
Rep. Eric Lucero (R-Dayton) called the conversation “a healthy one,” but said repaying one’s debt to society equals incarceration time plus probation.
Lucero would welcome discussion about reducing “excessive” probation that sometimes goes for 30 or 40 years. “If we were to reduce those to a more reasonable time period, then I think this conversation essentially would solve itself for the most part,” he said.
Rep. Jim Newberger (R-Becker) voted against the bill, saying someone needs to speak for victims.
“Murder is a felony, and when you are killed you do not get to vote ever again,” he said. “I do not support restoring the right to vote for someone who has taken another person’s life.”
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