Wait will go on for felons seeking return of voting rights

By the narrowest of margins, a bill to return the right to vote for felons faster than would happen otherwise stalled again Thursday at the Capitol.

The bill was put on hold following an 8-7 show of hands vote in the House Public Safety and Security Policy Committee, with Rep. Nick Zerwas joining all Democrats on the losing side. Zerwas, R-Elk River, is a bill cosponsor. The proposal could arise later as a potential amendment on the House floor to another bill, but the likelihood of success is slim.

A companion measure has previously gotten through the Senate -- though not since Republicans took control in 2017 -- but the House has typically been the bigger struggle.

The bill would change the law so felons would be able to vote once they are no longer incarcerated.

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“We’re expecting them to be good, upstanding citizens and one of the basic sort of impacts of being a good citizen is participating in our voting,” said Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis and the chief sponsor of the legislation.

Bill supporters said as many as 50,000 people would be affected by a quicker restoration of voting rights. Dehn said 60 percent of those people live outside Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

“This isn’t an urban issue. This isn’t a rural issue,” he said. “This is a statewide issue.”

Elizer Darris, who works for the ACLU on voting issues, has helped promote the importance of voting. He told the committee it is bittersweet to see the red ‘I Voted’ stickers on Election Day because he isn’t allowed to wear one.

Darris remains on supervised release after serving 17 years in prison for a murder he committed as a 15-year-old in 1999. He won’t be eligible to vote until 2025.

“I’m right here in the community with all of you, right now in the heart of it," he said. "But I am invisible to society in one of the most fundamental ways of being a citizen -- a ghost, a nonvoter.”

Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, said he would be willing to consider supporting the bill if it excluded serious offenses such as murder.

“Someone has to speak for the victims,” Newberger said. “Murder is a felony, and when you are killed you don’t get to vote ever again. Murder victims can never vote again. I do not support restoring the right to vote to someone who has taken another person’s life.”

Newberger is a candidate for U.S. Senate and the likely Republican challenger to Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Currently, voting rights are restored after a person is off parole and completes any probation. Dehn said some probation periods extend for up to 40 years.

Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, said the focus would be better spent on making sure probationary periods are fairer.

“The fact is, the debt to society equals jail time plus probation,” he said. “And at the end of the debt to society, which equals jail time plus probation, voting rights are restored.”

Advocates said voting rights are one step in the redemption of people with a criminal past and could help them reintegrate faster into society.

But Committee Chairman Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, said he is struggling with how the bill complies with the state constitution. He said the constitution might require amending.

There are currently 15 states that have a felon voting law similar to the proposal before Minnesota lawmakers.