Senate committee rejects allowing felons to vote

By T.W. Budig, ECM Capitol Reporter

Whether it’s best to spend money to let felons know they’re ineligible to vote or simply let them vote once out of jail was debated in the Senate Local Government and Election Committee Monday, March 5.

One election integrity concern people on both sides of the Photo ID debate cite as a problem in Minnesota is felons, unwittingly or otherwise, breaking the law by voting in elections.

Chamberlain’s bill contains a number of provisions addressing the issue. For instance, the Secretary of State’s Office, using corrections department data, under the bill would mail notices to felons at least a month before a state general election informing them that voting on probation is a felony.

Notices would also be sent to felons who have completed their term of probation and whose voting rights had been restored.

All told, about 70,000 notifications would be sent, according to a Secretary of State’s Office official — a task estimate to cost about $50,000.

It’s believed some felons simply do not understand that their voting rights were lost when they were convicted.

But some senators believe there’s a simpler, more socially productive approach than mailing notices.

Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, in committee proposed an amendment granting felons the right to vote as soon as released from prison.

“I would like to suggest this is cheap, it’s effective, it takes care of the problem that we have,” Eaton said.

On personal level, Eaton explained that a family member had been a victim of violent crime.

But the idea of restoring the voting rights to felons doesn’t trouble her, she explained.

“I certainly think it’s time (to change),” Eaton said.

Others agreed.

Mark Haase, director of public policy and advocacy for the Council on Crime and Justice, a nonprofit group that studies the justice system, said since the early 1980s Minnesota has seen a 500 percent increase in felony convictions  — an increase reflecting changes in law — and that some 87 percent of felons live outside of prison within the community.

Groups like the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition support quick restoration of voting rights to felons.

They argue it more quickly draws the former wrongdoer back into the community.

The Minnesota County Attorneys Association supports this approach, already in use in neighboring North Dakota.

Association Executive Director John Kingrey explained the support stems from the reality of having limited resources.

Isn’t it better to spend limited dollars cracking down on drunk drivers for instance,  he argued, than tracking felons who may have voted.

“It saves money,” said Sen. Kenneth Kelash, DFL-Minneapolis, of allowing felons to vote.

“It’s been proven in other states that it works well,” he said in committee.

Sen. John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, former St. Paul Police chief, said the victims of violent crimes undergo a catastrophic experience.

Still, the vast majority of felons have been convicted on property crimes, not crimes of violence, he explained.

But several Republican on the committee spoke out against the amendment.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grover, said that felons weren’t “disenfranchised” but rather lost their voting rights as a result of their criminal behavior.

“I’m not quite sure we’re ready for that,” he said of newly released felons voting.

Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, said the amendment would set up the “odd circumstance” of someone getting out of the jail and immediately voted to remove the county attorney or judge that sent them behind bars.

Chamberlain spoke out against the amendment.

“Just because something is simply and easy doesn’t equate to it being right,” he said.

Eaton’s amendment failed on a 5 to 9 vote.

But Chamberlain, for one, thought the concept of restoring voting rights to felons once released from jail was worthy of future discussions.

But now is not the time, he said.

Chamberlain’s legislation was passed and sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

A bill Chamberlain has calling for a $300 million bond issuance to help finance the construction of a Vikings’ stadium that had been scheduled for a hearing today in committee was deferred to a later time.

The committee just ran out of time Monday, Chamberlain said.

He expects the bill to be heard in the near future.