Surrounded by dozens of formerly-incarcerated Minnesotans, advocates and faith leaders, Gov. Tim Walz on Friday signed into law a measure restoring the right to vote to felons who’ve served out their prison or jail sentences.
The law is expected to make 50,000 or more people convicted of felonies but still “on paper” — serving out probation or parole — eligible to vote beginning right away. It’s the largest voting rights expansion the state has seen in decades.
“Today is a good day for democracy. Today is a good day for justice. Today is a good day for Minnesota,” Walz said before he signed the bill into law.
“In this country, we're a country of second chances. We're a country of welcoming folks back in. And the idea of not allowing those voices to have a say, in the very governing of the communities they live in is simply unacceptable,” he continued.
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‘No longer be silenced’
For decades, those on probation, along with civil rights and offenders’ rights advocates, had pressed the Legislature to rewrite the law. They said the moment was gratifying and had been a long time coming.
Jennifer Schroeder was sentenced to one year in jail and 40 years on probation when she was sentenced for a felony drug crime a decade ago. She said she has since gone through treatment, went back to school and now works as a drug counselor helping others who are struggling.
“It's a moment that we never stopped hoping for. I and so many other people have fought very hard for this,” Schroeder said. “Thanks to this law that changes today, the voices of those who have struggled will no longer be silenced. Now I'm calling on Minnesotans who are affected by this law to make their voices heard. Go vote. Go get your red sticker and wear it proudly.”
Schroeder, along with a handful of others who were unable to vote because they were on supervised release, sued the state over the old law. The Minnesota Supreme last month ruled that the former law was constitutional and said it would be up to the Legislature to address the issue.
‘I voted. Those are two very powerful words.’
Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, and Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, carried the bill at the Capitol this year. And they credited former lawmakers for bringing the bill again and again at the Capitol.
Attorney General Keith Ellison first introduced the proposal in 2003 when he was a state representative. He said he got the idea after talking to constituents while out door knocking.
The DFLer said it was a big step for the community that carried the legislation to see it become law, but there is more work to do now in getting the newly-eligible people to actually vote.
“This is the end of the beginning,” Ellison said. “The next stage is to help people know what their rights are, the whole campaign that awaits us right now.”
Secretary of State Steve Simon said he would immediately begin working with the Department of Corrections to notify newly eligible people about the change. And he held up a roll of “I Voted” stickers that he said he hoped the new voters would receive.
“I voted. Those are two very powerful words,” Simon said. “And I can't wait to see tens of thousands of newly eligible voters in Minnesota pin this badge of democracy on their chest in the next election.”