A bill is currently working its way through the Minnesota statehouse that would restore the right to vote to some 47,000 Americans, all of whom have been convicted on felony charges and are currently on probation or parole. Under existing Minnesota law, it is illegal for these 47,000 people to vote in elections, just as it is for more than 4 million other non-incarcerated felons around the country. If the legislation passes—so far it has gotten through two committees in the Senate, but has yet to move forward in the House—the state would join 13 others in allowing felons to vote as soon as they leave prison. (Maine and Vermont allow felons to vote while still in prison.) Felon enfranchisement measures tend to face opposition from conservatives. But the Minnesota bill has built strong momentum among Republicans. The bill’s supporters on the right include state Rep. Tony Cornish, a former police chief known for wearing a pin on his lapel depicting a pair of handcuffs, who has signed on as the bill’s chief author in the House. Of the remaining 44 lawmakers in the Senate and House who have officially come out in support of the enfranchisement measure, about one-third are Republicans. The bill has received endorsements from several law enforcement associations and libertarian groups as well.
On the surface, the bipartisan embrace for the Minnesota bill might appear to fit with the broader narrative about criminal justice reform in America, with Republicans and Democrats seemingly on the same page about the need to make the system less punitive. But the politics surrounding voting rights for ex-cons are complicated. Will the progress in Minnesota augur bipartisan cooperation on the issue nationwide?
Proponents of making it easier for ex-felons to vote usually make a moral case and a practical case. The moral case is that ex-cons have already paid their debt to society and should be allowed to enjoy the full range of rights afforded to the rest of us. The practical case is that preventing ex-cons from voting is logistically more trouble than it’s worth.
“These are folks we’ve deemed safe to live and work among us,” said Christopher Uggen, a criminologist at the University of Minnesota and the co-author of Clocked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy. “They pay taxes, they participate in their communities in all sorts of ways, and logistically, it’s far simpler to have a system where, if you’re in, you’re in, and if you’re out, you’re out.”
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