When you're convicted of a felony, your right to vote may or may not be taken away, depending on where you live. In Maine and Vermont you aren't disenfranchised at all, and can even vote from your prison cell by absentee ballot. In eleven states, however, you can permanently lose your right to vote.
A felony, is a serious crime, including murder or rape. But it can include many other offenses such as domestic assault (on a third offense), DWI (on a fourth offense) and sale of marijuana.
In Minnesota, the law is midway between the two extremes. Upon conviction of a felony you lose your voting rights until you are out of prison or jail and have completed any parole or probation. A total of twenty states take this approach.
However, 13 states have taken the position that felons should have their rights restored once they get out of state prison or county jail. These states want to reintegrate ex-cons into the community by allowing them full citizenship, including the right to vote, even while they are completing their supervised release (parole or probation).
The Minnesota legislature is now debating a bipartisan bill that would put our state in this latter group. The chief author in the House of Representatives is a former deputy sheriff, Department of Natural Resources conservation officer and a Republican. His name is Tony Cornish and he represents Blue Earth County. Co-authors in the House are 11 other Republicans and 20 Democrats.
In the Senate, the chief author is Bobby Joe Champion of Minneapolis. He is a former Assistant Attorney General and a Democrat. Co-authors are another Democrat and three Republicans. Senator Tom Bakk, who represents the Arrowhead region and is majority leader in the Senate, told me that he supports the bill, but thinks it is unlikely to pass because of "tough election politics." However, the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved the bill and sent it to the Rules Committee, chaired by Bakk. Did you know you could watch the speakers at the committee hearing? Go to www.senate.leg.state.mn.us and search for S.F. 355.
There are over 60,000 Minnesotans who are on probation or parole for felonies they committed. Some 930 of these are in the Arrowhead Region (6th Judicial District). These are the people who would be re-enfranchised by allowing parolees and probationers to vote. Since 1974, the number of disenfranchised voters in our state has increased 500 percent, making Minnesota the fourth highest state in the number of individuals per capita who are on parole or probation. The majority of these people have never spent time in prison; 87 percent of them live in the community, hold jobs and pay taxes, but can't vote.
In the past, however, some of these people have voted. Understandably, they think that once they are out of prison, their right to vote is restored, even while on parole. Minnesota has a law that requires the county attorney, once notified of a voting violation, to "promptly investigate" (Minn. St. 201.275). In fact, failure to investigate is a misdemeanor and the county attorney "shall forfeit office." Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said his office spent more than $100,000 investigating claims that felons had voted in the 2008 election, and found only 28 cases of people who shouldn't have voted. These 28 were sentenced to community service.
"It was all a waste of time," Freeman said. "That money, that time, could have been spent on important public safety issues."
The new law will repeal that statute. Freeman isn't alone in believing it's time for a change in the law. Backers of the legislation include the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the Council of Churches, the ACLU, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the AFL-CIO. See www.restorethevotemn.org/about for a complete list.
Here is the exact wording of the proposed new law: "An individual convicted of a felony has the civil right to vote restored when the individual completes any incarceration imposed and executed by the court for the offense, or upon sentencing if no incarceration is imposed and executed."
If the legislature passes the law, Minnesota will join Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Utah in permitting felons to vote when they are released from incarceration.
Mary Murphy, who represents part of Lake County in the state legislature, says she supports the bill. She told me that "87 percent of the disenfranchised Minnesotans live in Greater Minnesota communities, hold jobs and pay taxes. I think their voting rights should be restored and the state Department of Corrections and county probation offices should be more diligent in their efforts to ensure these individuals know they are again eligible to vote."
James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota's Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills, and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and are not to be attributed to his employer.