Minnesota Is Restoring the Voting Rights of Tens of Thousands

The state adopted a bill to narrow felony disenfranchisement. “That’s going to allow me to feel my humanity so much more,” said one Minnesotan.

Alex Burness   |    February 22, 2023

Bobby Joe Champion became the president of the Minesota state senate when Democrats gained the chamber in November, and he championed a bill restoring voting rights for people on probation and parole. (Photo from Senator Champion/Facebook)

Editor’s note (March 3): Governor Tim Walz signed House File 28 on March 3.

Elizer Darris has thought many times about how it must feel to hold one of the red “I VOTED” stickers Minnesota gives out at polling places.

He was sentenced to prison as a child, too young to have ever voted. He was released in 2016, but he has remained on probation ever since, in a state with exceptionally long probation terms. Minnesota strips people of their voting rights when they are convicted of a felony and only restores them upon completion of all parts of a sentence, which means that Darris still can’t vote.

That’s poised to change now. Minnesota’s legislature on Tuesday adopted House File 28, a bill termed Restore The Vote. It would grant ballot access to Minnesotans on parole or on probation, currently estimated to be roughly 50,000 people—though not to the more than 8,000 people in state prisons over a felony.

“That’s going to allow me to feel my humanity so much more,” Darris, who is now co-executive director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund, told Bolts. “Society has basically told me I’m locked away from having the most basic engagement with democracy. Well, now I will be engaged in the democratic experience.”

The legislature’s move on Tuesday sent the bill to Governor Tim Walz, a Democrat who has long supported this change. The bill’s lead sponsor, Bobby Joe Champion, the Democratic president of the Minnesota Senate, told Bolts he is certain Walz will sign it. 

If and when he does, Minnesota would become the 25th state, plus Washington, D.C., to grant voting rights to anyone who is not presently incarcerated. (Maine, Vermont, and D.C., also allow anyone to vote from prison.) That milestone is the result of a rapid shift in blue-run states, with seven making this same move since 2018; North Carolina joined them last year due a court ruling that the GOP-held state supreme court may soon reverse.

Minnesota advocates, plus many state lawmakers, have fought for years for this change but fallen short amid the opposition of Republican lawmakers. The change, along with a slew of other liberal priorities, such as protections for abortion rights and cannabis legalization, is now possible because Democrats gained full control of the statehouse when they flipped the state Senate in November.

Champion, who became Senate leader and prioritized this legislation, has made the case that people caught up in the criminal legal system should feel and maintain ties to their communities, including by voting. 

Minnesota has among the nation’s highest rates of people on probation, with people serving unusually long terms. 

“There are folks in Minnesota who are out on long probationary periods—10, 15, 20 years,” Champion told Bolts. “They’re out in our communities paying taxes, raising families, being productive citizens, but not being given a chance for their voice to count. They are treated like second-class citizens who are not a part of our democracy.” 

Black Minnesotans are disproportionately affected by this system. Roughly 18 percent of people who were barred from voting in the 2022 midterms because they were on probation or parole were Black, according to a study by the Sentencing Project, while only about 5 percent of Minnesota’s voting-age population is Black. Racial inequality, in the criminal legal system and otherwise, is a fixture in Minnesota—the state is sometimes referred to as “Mississippi of the north”—and has inspired major protests in recent years.  

The bill passed the Senate on Tuesday by a margin of 35-30, with one Republican senator—Jim Abeler—joining all Democrats in the majority. 

It cleared the House earlier this month on a near-party-line vote, with two Republicans crossing over in support.

Republican senators opposed to the bill on Tuesday brought a slew of unsuccessful amendments that would have carved out people who are on probation or parole after being convicted of a violent crimes—murder, manslaughter, assault, and kidnapping, among others.

“We need to think about the victims here,” Senator Glenn Gruenhagen said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

Followed Senator Andrew Mathews, “People who commit a crime of murder or manslaughter have permanently taken away their victims’ right to vote.”

Consistently, Champion responded on the Senate floor with a message centered on the public-safety benefit of reducing recidivism by giving people on parole and probation one more way to feel connected to and invested in their home state. He noted repeatedly that many advocates for crime victims support the bill.

Several states are considering legislation this year to also enable people with felony convictions to vote from prison, a move Washington, D.C., took in 2020.

Champion told Bolts that he believes all people in Minnesota should be able to vote—including those in prison. He said he held off on proposing that within the Restore The Vote legislation in order to not “confuse the narrative.”

“I will continue to see if there’s a pathway for those who are incarcerated to vote,” he said, but added that he feels it is necessary in this case to take one step at a time. 

Darris argued that many of the same points commonly offered in favor of allowing people to vote upon release from prison should apply to the case for total re-enfranchisement. For one, he said, people in prisons are taxpayers, too.

“There’s not an item besides clothing that a person in state prison purchases that’s not taxed,” he said. “This nation has gone to war over taxation without representation. We don’t have a democracy if every last vote doesn’t count.”

Zeke Caligiuri, another Minnesotan who is now poised to vote for the first time, said he hopes Minnesota grants imprisoned people voting rights soon. He was released in April after spending 24 years in prison and is now on parole.

“Every election year what would happen is [incarcerated] people, you know, watch the news, watch television. They’re aware of things and current events, and they do care,” he told Bolts. “If you’re willing to extend that to us, a lot of people would love to take advantage of that.”

When House File 28 becomes law, Champion said, it will be important to ensure that all those it affects are made aware of their rights. The legislation requires correctional facility staff to provide people exiting incarceration with a notice that reads, in part, “your right to vote in Minnesota has been restored,” and provides information about how to register. Champion said public defenders, re-entry programs, faith institutions, and local elections officials have all also agreed to help spread the word.

Darris said he plans to help out in that work—starting with registering himself for the first time.

“I’m going to get a red sticker,” he said.