Testimony on Behalf of Restoring the Right to Vote to Formerly Incarcerated Felons (HF28)

Rep. Cedrick Frazier (DFL–43A)  moved for HF28 to be re-referred to the House Committee on Judiciary Finance and Civil Law. His comments to the House Public Safety Finance and Policy committee on January 19: “The cornerstone of our democracy is the right to vote. House File 28 will restore that right to vote back to individuals that have been convicted of a felony but are no longer incarcerated.”

He noted that currently there are about 50,000 Minnesotans that are on probation or parole. “We should seek responses to crime that do not simply punish, but that rehabilitate, heal, and restore. Not allowing a right to vote to those we have deemed safe to re-enter the community does not further a criminal justice purpose.”

Raymond Dehn, who formerly served in the legislature, testified that he served seven months after a felony conviction in 1976. He was released from probation early, and received a pardon in 1981. “A majority of research shows that pro-civic behavior, like voting, significantly reduces the likelihood of someone re-offending. This is not only an election bill — it’s also a community safety bill. This bill will positively impact community safety. Should you not be in support of this bill, I can only believe that it is because you believe that a punishment is more important than public safety.”

He noted that two states and Washington, D.C., allow people to vote while they are incarcerated, and 21 states — not including Minnesota — allow people to vote after they are released and are under supervision.

Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty testified on behalf of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, which represents 87 county attorneys across the State, and indicated that the association board voted unanimously to support House File 28. “We know that people who commit crimes need to be held accountable, but those consequences should serve a purpose,” she said. “We know that the purpose of probation is to give people the opportunity to live in the community while also taking on the rights and obligations of citizenship. When we deny people the right to vote, we make reintegration into the community much more difficult. Voting is the type of prosocial behavior we want to encourage of those on probation or parole, because it is a sign that they are succeeding at reintegrating into the community.”

Jean La Fontaine testified as a community organizer with the Barbershop and Black Congregation Cooperative of Isaiah, and Faith in Minnesota, for the last four years in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center. “These two wonderful cities have been at the forefront of the public safety conversation in Minnesota because of the civil participation of some residents in both cities,” she said. “Despite this emerging civic life, it is also the case that these cities lag when it comes to voter participation, especially in communities of color. One reason why I believe this to be the case is because of the [misinformed] perception that in Minnesota, [someone with a felony conviction] permanently forfeits their right to vote. I also cannot tell you how many people I’ve met who served their times, are productive members of society, and wish that they could vote but currently find themselves on the wrong end of structural disenfranchisement.”

Jay Lindgren, leader with Faith in Minnesota and We Choose Us, said: “I spent 50 years working in corrections in Minnesota, in Texas, and Rhode Island. The experience taught me that individuals who commit so-called street crimes believe they have little stake in civil society. Disenfranchisement only amplifies that belief.”

“Why, might you ask, are a bunch of Lutherans engaging in this issue about voting rights? First, we believe in the dignity of all people created in God’s image. We believe in the hope for restoration and reconciliation. Active love for neighbor often calls us into the public square to advocate when the dignity or the hope for restoration is diminished in people’s lives.”

BISHOP ANN SVENNUNGSEN, OF THE MINNEAPOLIS AREA SYNOD OF THE EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH OF AMERICA

Antonio Williams was incarcerated 14 years. Since being home nearly three years ago, he has worked on a campaign each election cycle and led voter engagement and voter turnout efforts. “I have been welcomed back into community by community, but I’m not welcome back into my community fully by my state because I’m not fully included in our democracy,” he said. “What I know about inclusion is that it restores more than just the power to choose representation. It restores dignity, it restores hope. Without full participation in our democracy, we are seeing people who say ‘this isn’t mine, so why should I care?’ This bill says I have a community that recognizes my worth and my value. When I’m better my community is better and my community sees that.”

Other formerly incarcerated individuals who testified included Kevin Reese, founder of Until We Are All Free; Zeke Caligiuri, who does community outreach work for the Minnesota Justice Research Center; and Tom Evanstad, who said he was wrongfully convicted in 1999, and has not been able to vote since his release. “Being unable to vote or to run for office, to use my hard-earned knowledge and experience to try to make positive changes, has been extremely demoralizing and really unfair,” Evanstad said.

In the legislative member discussion after testimony, Rep. Walter Hudson (GOP–30A) said: “There’s never been a public policy–public deliberation moment where people got into a room and asked themselves the question: should we have thousands of people walking around out there who would otherwise be eligible to vote and can’t?,” he said. “The question I think we have to consider, is voting on the list of things that should be restricted properly when somebody has a felony conviction? And I’ll be honest with you, I struggle very much with the answer to that question, but I’m glad that we’re having the discussion.”

Rep. Frazier (DFL–43A) thanked Rep. Hudson for his comments, and added that this restoration of vote legislation was previously carried by Raymond Dehn, Keith Ellison, and Bobby Joe Champion when they were all House members. “I’m hoping we’re at a point where we can understand and appreciate, from the testimony that we heard, how impactful it would be,” Frazier said.

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn (DFL–40B) said part of the restoration bill is to make it more clear about who does and does not have the right to vote after a felony conviction, and when. “It is the Department of Corrections, not the Department of Continual Punishment,” she added.

Rep. Paul Novotny (GOP–30B) said: “It occurs to me as I sit here now that the one person that hasn’t had their rights restored are the people that aren’t here because they’ve been victims of violent crime. And for that I am going to vote no to stand up for the victims that don’t have that right.”

Chairperson Kelly Moller indicated that letters of support in the legislation packet included those from the Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

The bill was referred next to the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee.