Felon voting rights: Minnesota House plans Thursday vote

Some 50,000 convicted felons in Minnesota will be one step closer to having their voting rights restored Thursday.

Democrats who control the House have scheduled an evening floor vote on the bill, which would restore voting rights immediately after a person is released from prison. Minnesota currently requires people to serve their entire sentence, including probation or parole terms that often stretch years or decades. Identical legislation is moving through Senate committees.

"As we’ve already deemed (formerly incarcerated people) safe to be back in the community, the one thing they’re missing is the ability to fully participate in our electoral process," said state Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, and the bill's author.

In recent years, Republicans have blocked the legislation, leaving activists to try legal avenues that have stalled. The Minnesota Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a lawsuit over the matter in November 2021, but 14 months have passed without a ruling.

In the meantime, Democrats won control of the Legislature and made felon voting rights one of their top election-related priorities.

Their bill requires the Secretary of State to change the certification portion of voter registration forms and publicize the change to formerly incarcerated people. That will cost the state around $14,000, fiscal analysts said this week.

Elizer Darris, one of the plaintiffs in the pending lawsuit, spoke at a news conference with Secretary of State Steve Simon last month in support of the change. Darris, who's been out of prison for seven years, has now become an activist for voting rights restoration.

"You would never be able to look at me and say, 'Oh, he’s formally incarcerated.' You wouldn’t be able to do it. but I can’t vote," Darris said. "We’re calling upon the Legislature and the governor to pass the bill and sign the bill to open up democracy for all of us."

In 19 states, felons only lose their voting rights during their prison sentences. In two other states, Maine and Vermont, incarcerated people never lose the right to vote. Voters and lawmakers in both red and blue states have loosened their laws in recent years. Minnesota has some of the shortest prison sentences in the country but among the longest probation lengths.

Republicans remain opposed to the legislation, though the GOP is now in the minority and powerless to stop it from becoming law.

"As you walk out the door of prison, I’m not sure that is exactly the time that most Minnesotans believe it is time to have those rights restored," said state Sen. Jim Nash, R-Waconia.