On Election Day in 2016, Devon “DV” Williams felt the weight of the label “felon.” More than 2.9 million Minnesotans voted but he wasn’t one of them.
“Everybody’s walking around with their ‘I Voted’ sticker and that’s the whole point if you don’t vote,” said Williams, who was serving a three-year probation sentence for a third-degree drug possession felony at the time.
“When somebody asks you like, ‘Oh why didn’t you vote?’ You can say because I didn’t want to participate,” said Williams. “But when your rights are stripped away and somebody asks you ‘Why didn’t you vote?’ You gotta say, ‘I can’t vote.’”
He had finished a year and a half at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center in St. Louis County, Minnesota’s only “correctional work farm.”
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Friends and family in Minneapolis were talking about the race between Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump. He was aware how important the election was, but couldn’t vote — state law prohibited anyone convicted of a felony from voting until they served out their full sentence, even if they had been released from prison or jail.
For some, that could range from a few years to a decade or more.
“It’s degrading,” said Williams, who is now 32 years old.
On Nov. 7, he’ll be voting for the first time in 15 years, inspired by Minnesota’s new “Restore The Vote” law. It’s estimated to restore the voting rights of 55,000 Minnesotans who are not incarcerated, but still serving out probation or any form of supervised release for a convicted felony.
“It’s a beautiful thing that we are able to vote now because now nobody can judge me with my background because I paid my debts to society and I shouldn't be looked at like that,” said Williams.
Canvassing group knocks on doors to get the word out on Restore the Vote
The new law went into effect on June 1 and allows anyone convicted of a felony to register to vote so long as they are not currently incarcerated. It’s the largest voter-eligibility change in Minnesota in half a century.
Williams became eligible to vote when his probation sentence ended in 2019 but wasn’t motivated to until he became involved in T.O.N.E. U.P, an organization that helps justice-impacted Minnesotans rejoin their communities after incarceration. He’s an example of how the new law could encourage voting beyond just those whose rights it restored.
The local nonprofit was founded by Williams’s cousin Antonio Williams, 37, who spent 14 years in prison on a murder accessory conviction and created T.O.N.E. U.P shortly after he was released in 2020.
The nonprofit is based in Minneapolis and was part of the coalition advocating for the passage of Restore the Vote, spending months knocking on hundreds of doors in the Twin Cities area to educate on the new law. They plan to canvass up until Election Day.
“We’re out here in real life interacting with real people that have real things going on right just like we do,” Antonio said to his team on Oct. 17 while out canvassing in south Minneapolis.
After knocking on a few dozen doors, Antonio had some success with people who took the time to listen.
“So this is why it's so important for us to be out here,” said Antonio. “Even in the midst of what she was doing and going through, it was still ‘I know you doing something important so I’ma wait and hear what you got to say.’”
Devonte Williams, program director of T.O.N.E. U.P and brother of DV Williams, plans to go with Antonio, DV and a group of other justice-impacted individuals to vote on Nov. 7, a big showing for an off-year election. He served a 45-day sentence for a third-degree drug possession felony and is currently on supervised release.
“For me, not practicing democracy is crazy,” said Devonte, who is 31. “At first, it wasn't even important to me. I didn’t care. I had excuses. Like, nothing's gonna change and all these other things. But seeing things change, and also being a part of it is monumental to me.”
In the past year of canvassing, Devonte has seen the impact community outreach can have for formerly incarcerated Minnesotans.
“It’s the young energy that are getting people motivated,” said Devonte. “Getting people involved, and especially the people that are coming home from being incarcerated, them seeing younger people doing this makes them want to like hit the ground running.”
Antonio said he was not close with Devonte and DV when they were young, but the brothers reached out to him while he was in prison, opening the door for them to reconnect and for Antonio to bring them in to T.O.N.E. U.P.
“It’s the ultimate dream, right? When you have the idea and the ambition to help other people, I think most people first think of helping like their family first if they’re in need,” Antonio said. “It's so much more meaningful and impactful for me when I’m able to do it with my own family, because my own family has been hit hard by mass incarceration.”
Two legal challenges attempt to block new voting rights law
Restore the Vote is facing two legal challenges. One was filed by conservative-leaning Minnesota Voters Alliance in Anoka County in late June and another comes from a district court judge in Mille Lacs County earlier this month.
Both seek to undermine the new state law and declare it as unconstitutional.
According to court documents, Minnesota Voters Alliance argues against allowing people convicted of felonies on probation, supervised release or work release to vote and says the law “created new provisions altering what information is maintained on voters, what notices must be provided to voters, and affecting challenges to voter eligibility on Election Day.”
The challenge in Mille Lacs County comes after District Court Judge Matthew Quinn sentenced two people convicted of felonies to probation on the condition that they could not vote, register to vote or attempt to vote until they fully served out their sentences.
In a 15-page order, Quinn argued that restoring the voting rights of people convicted of felonies after completing a prison sentence is unconstitutional.
“The Legislature would now be empowered to state the fact that a statute does not violate the Minnesota Constitution within the language of the statute itself,” Quinn wrote. “Put another way, the Legislature, and not the judiciary, defines the net effect of a statute. The Legislature would, in a sense, be free to circumvent provisions of the Minnesota Constitution by simply stating that x equals y.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced last week that his office intervened in cases involving Quinn, asking the Minnesota Court of Appeals to rule against him.
“Judicial restraint and respect for the separation of powers are essential principles of our justice system. When either of those principles is violated, Minnesotans lose trust in the system — and Judge Quinn has violated both principles,” Attorney General Ellison said. “I support a writ of prohibition as the best option for quickly keeping Judge Quinn from further violating our justice system and Minnesotans’ trust.”
Whether either legal challenge ends up affecting voting rights for roughly 55,000 people convicted of felonies remains to be seen. A court hearing is scheduled in Anoka County next Monday in the Minnesota Voters Alliance case. The Minnesota Court of Appeals is expected to rule on the Mille Lacs County case before the election.