Advocates for restoring voting rights for convicted felons kicked off their push Tuesday at the state Capitol, where they aim to convince state legislators to change state law.
Members of the Restore the Vote Coalition say a bill that would allow felons who have been released from prison to vote is a civil rights issue that will allow thousands of people, many of them minorities, to have a say in the political process. They want Minnesota to join 13 other states that allow felons to vote once they finish serving their prison time.
The group's members include Rob Stewart, who is passionate about school funding, constitutional amendments and stadium financing. But Stewart, of Minneapolis, lost his right to vote in 2006. He was later sent to prison for first-degree felony drug possession.
"I have been sober and clean since 2007," Stewart said. "I graduated from college, I'm in a PhD program. I volunteer in the community. I have turned my life around."
Under current state law Stewart won't regain his voting rights until next year, when he is no longer on parole. He and others want the Legislature to change the law so felons are eligible to vote as soon as they leave prison. Stewart said that would clear up confusion over when a felon's voting rights are restored.
"When you get out of prison, they don't necessarily give you a laundry list of things you can't do," he said. "They just expect you to know these things, and the fact is that probation officers don't always know the current law anyway."
A large number of groups including the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP and the Minnesota Catholic Conference agree with Stewart. They cite University of Minnesota statistics that say 63,000 convicted felons were ineligible to vote in 2012.
Sarah Walker, co-founder of the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, said 75 percent of those felons never served any prison time.
"The probation population, for the most part, has not actually been to prison," Walker said. "So they're staying in their communities, they're living and raising families. They're taking their kids to school. They're our neighbors, and I really worry about the long-term effects of disenfranchising that many people."
Walker and others say restoring voting rights for felons should be considered a civil rights issue. State Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said he regularly comes into contact with people of color who don't think they can vote because they have a felony on their record.
"So many people who get felonies look like me, and those folks are kept in limboland where they served their time or at least they're now back and reintegrated into society," said Hayden, who is African-American. "One of the things that people need are a job and an opportunity, but they also need to feel like they are a part of society. And when you can't vote then you're really kind of disenfranchised."
Sponsors of the measures state Rep. Raymond Dehn and state Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, two Minneapolis Democrats, say they're optimistic they can pass the bill this session. But that's far from certain. House Elections Committee Chair Steve Simon supports the bill but said it's far from a sure thing that the bill will become law this year.
"The problem that we run into in the Legislature is the bipartisanship requirement," said Simon, DFL-Hopkins. "There's a real partisan divide on this issue. In order to have this signed into law, the governor has made clear, with all election items, there's going to need to be bipartisan support and there is very, very little of that right now."
Simon, who is seeking the DFL endorsement for Secretary of State, said he hopes to work out a compromise with Republicans who oppose restoring the voting rights of convicted felons.
State Rep. Tim Sanders, R-Blaine, said he would consider helping felons learn when they're eligible to vote but is less inclined to change current law. Sanders said he doesn't believe some felons should be granted immediate voting rights once they leave prison.
"There are some crimes that are so horrendous that having the ability to shape and influence policy, I think you lose that right," Sanders said. "Like I said, some of those horrendous things — first-degree murder, physically and sexually abusing kids — you lost the ability in my mind to be able to have influence in that role. You forfeited that right."