Gwen Walz lends support to felon voting rights push

Minnesota First Ladt Gwen Walz speaks in support of felon voting rights during a state Capitol rally. Tim Pugmire|MPR News

Minnesota First Lady Gwen Walz is lending her voice to the felon voting issue that lawmakers will debate this session.

Walz spoke Thursday at a Minnesota Second Chance Coalition rally at the state Capitol. She supports legislation the group is pushing that would restore the voting rights of convicted felons once they’ve completed serving jail time. Currently, felons must complete probation, parole and other terms of their release before they can vote again.

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Walz, who said it was her first public event as First Lady, urged those who’ve lost their voting rights to share their experiences.

“I think stories are so important because they help us understand the humanity behind what just might look like an issue,” Walz said. “I’d like to encourage you to continue to tell your stories, because they are our greatest hope and our greatest power.”

One story came from Mark Rios, who was convicted of two felonies in 2015. Rios said he won’t be able to vote until he completes probation.

“I own a house. I pay property tax. My kids go to school, and I don’t have a say so. I’m silenced for the next 10 years,” Rios said.

The bill’s chief sponsor in the House, Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, said he shared his own story of incarceration during a similar rally 10 years ago, before he was elected to the Legislature.

“I’m someone who had a second chance,” Dehn said. “That second chance allowed me the opportunity to go down a path that was charted very differently than if I wouldn’t have had that second chance.”

Dehn’s bill is scheduled to get its first committee hearing next week.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, assured the crowd that the proposal will see favorable action.

“I’m here to tell today that the Minnesota House of Representatives is going to pass restore the vote this year,” Winkler said.

But the proposal faces resistance in the Republican-controlled Senate.

A companion bill introduced Thursday by Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, was referred to the Senate judiciary committee. But the chair of the committee, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said he was not sure if the bill would get a hearing this year. Limmer said he’s not convinced that the proposed change would keep people from breaking the law again and going back to prison.

“Minnesota has had a long history of recognizing that when you victimize an innocent citizen, and you’re paying your time that you do lose your civil rights,” Limmer said. “I don’t think the public would be to friendly to lessening that attitude right now.”