Minnesota felons ask lawmakers for voting rights restoration

Convicted Minnesota felons are asking state lawmakers to restore voting rights for previously incarcerated people, but a bill that’s moving in the House faces a roadblock in the Senate.

Gov. Tim Walz, first lady Gwen Walz, and several top state and local officials have endorsed legislation allowing felons to vote after leaving prison. Currently, Minnesota requires that felons complete their entire sentence, including probation or parole, before restoration of their voting rights.

State Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, is the lead author of a bill that cleared a House subcommittee despite objections from some Republicans this week. Dehn was convicted of felony burglary at age 19 and has pushed felon voting rights bills during his time in the Legislature. This week, a crowd of supporters including Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, Secretary of State Steve Simon, and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman spoke in favor of the measure. 

“I don’t think anyone can seriously suggest that denying a person on parole the right to vote deters crime in any way,” said Freeman. 

Freeman said he prosecutes three or four previously incarcerated people a year who illegally try to vote, calling the law “confusing, burdensome and expensive to enforce.”

States are split on the issue, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Minnesota is among 22 states that require felons to serve their entire sentences before restoring their voting rights. Fourteen states allow people to vote upon leaving prison.

But 12 states are even more restrictive, requiring an additional waiting period or a petition process before a person can vote.

Rob Stewart of Maplewood said he was imprisoned for more than two years for felony drug possession. He said he was unable to vote for nearly 10 years because of Minnesota’s current law.

“Every election became a reminder that I was an outsider, that I wasn’t included as part of my community, our community,” Stewart said.

The bill is blocked in the state Senate, where Republicans are in control. Sen. Warren Limmer, the powerful chairman of the Judiciary committee, said his panel will not give the bill a hearing this year.

“The victim is always avoided in this type of debate. It’s all about felons,” Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said in an interview.

Limmer said he had serious doubts whether a change would make felons less likely to commit new crimes.

“I think that proponents’ claims are a little exaggerated,” he said. “Probation is exactly that: the time period where you prove to us that your life has changed, and then you can be restored of your civil rights.”

Gov. Walz said this week he was “passionate” about making the change, and first lady Gwen Walz is publicly advocating for it.

“America was always defined as a country of second chances, and I think one of the things is make sure you can vote,” the governor said during a forum at the University of Minnesota on Wednesday. “That brings you back in and encourages you to participate.”