Minn. senators make new voting push for freed felons

Lobbyist Cullen Sheehan demonstrates a touch-screen voting monitor. The machines would be permitted in polling places as part of an election bill that passed the Minnesota Senate. Brian Bakst | MPR News

Minnesota senators again went on record Tuesday in favor of restoring voting rights more quickly to felons no longer incarcerated, a plan that faces stiff opposition in the Republican-led House.

Currently, felons must complete their parole and probation before regaining voting rights. Some 47,000 people would be affected by the proposal, supporters said. Voting by ex-inmates has been a prominent issue nationally, with Virginia's governor using an executive order last week restoring voting rights for more than 200,000 felons in his state.

Given resistance among House leadership, chances remain slim that the legislation will reach DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in the form the Senate approved it. Similar legislation won Senate approval last year but didn't go any further.

The measure was attached to a wider-ranging election policy bill that also would authorize touch-screen voting systems as an option in polling places. The bill passed on a party-line 37-26 vote.

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Sen. Jeffrey Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said integrating freed felons back into society means restoring the voting franchise sooner. He said people on probation or parole are permitted to work and pay taxes, so they should have a say in how their communities are governed.

"It is time for us to not continue to penalize and penalize and penalize people for their past indiscretions," Hayden said. "It is time for us to enfranchise them. It is time for us to move forward and allow folks to vote."

But opponents, including Republican Sen. Dan Hall of Burnsville, said perpetrators of violent acts such as homicide or sexual assault shouldn't be rewarded.

"Is this full justice for the victims? If you were a victim would you say, 'Yes they've served their time?" Hall said, recounting how he initially co-sponsored the second-chance voting legislation. "When I realized it wasn't quite what I expected it to be I soon changed my mind. So I think it's important that what we do society is going to look at. And they're going to say, 'Are they fulfilling the sentence they're being given?' And if not, why are we giving any rights back to those who have harmed to this degree?"

One GOP amendment that was approved would make clear that felons with outstanding warrants or who commit probation violations wouldn't be eligible to vote.

The overall elections bill will be matched up with one that has yet to get final clearance from the House.

Other aspects of the Senate bill include:

  • Allowing 17-year-olds to pre-register if they will turn 18 by Election Day.

  • Permitting absentee voters who cast those early ballots in person to feed them directly into ballot counters to give them assurance it will be accepted.

  • Giving counties permission to have touch screen voting stations as an option.

  • Laying out election and continuity of government plans in case of an emergency.