Bill to restore voting rights to felons in Minnesota approved by legislature

Some 50,000 convicted felons who have been released from prison in Minnesota are one step closer to having their voting rights restored after the Senate passed a DFL-backed measure on Tuesday night.

Current policy only allows felons to vote after they have completed the entirety of their sentences, which can include years of probation after they have been released from prison.

The "Restore the Vote" bill passed Tuesday, sponsored by Sen. Joe Champion (DFL-Minneapolis), grants felons the right to vote after they have completed their prison terms. It passed 35-30.

The bill passed the House in February and will now head to Gov. Tim Walz for his signature.  

"It says that if a person is not incarcerated and if they're living in our communities, they should have the right to vote." Sen. Champion told the chambers.

Republican amendments attempt to create "carve-outs" or exceptions for felons who committed violent or particularly heinous crimes failed along party lines, as did an effort to require felons to pay back any fees, fines or criminal penalties owned before they could regain the right to vote. 

"There needs to be a consequence for some of these violent crimes. Think about the victims," said Sen. Glenn H. Gruenhagen (R-Glencoe).

Attempt to address racial disparities 

About 57,000 Minnesotans are unable to vote due to a felony conviction, and the vast majority, 47,000, or 82% are on probation or supervised release, according to data from Restore The Vote MM, an advocacy group supportive of the bill.

Advocates for the bill also pointed to data showing that felony disenfranchisement disproportionately impacts people of color —7.4% of African-Americana and 5.9% of American Indian Minnesotans are disenfranchised, compared to 1.1% of white Minnesotans, according to restore the vote.

Champion argued that allowing felons to vote would help them reintegrate into society — an idea supported by the research of criminologist Christopher Uggen, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota.

Uggen has studied felon voting rights throughout his career and has authored or coauthored several studies indicating that when previously incarcerated people vote, they are less likely to commit additional crimes.

"I think it would be a big step forward in many ways" Ugged said of the bill passed Tuesday. "In part because community supervision is about reintegration and about people renewing ties to the community and to their families, their employers, etc."

Uggen also pointed to what he described as the civil rights impact, noting the bill would re-enfranchise 4% of the adult voting age population for Black and Native Minnesotans.

"This would really reduce the multiplier effect that we've observed where the pronounced disparities in criminal justice are leading to pronounced disparities in political power," he said.

He points out that in the last two years, eight states have re-enfranchised people who were convicted of felonies and lost the right to vote.

State lawmakers in California, Massachusetts, and New York have all recently introduced legislation to give people convicted of felonies the right to vote.