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Secretary of State Steve Simon unveils his “Investing in Democracy” initiative at a Jan. 3 press conference. Restoring voting rights to felons who are no longer incarcerated is one element of the plan. Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, who is authoring a vote restoration bill, looks on at right. (Photo courtesy of The Uptake)

Felons’ restored rights top election-reform package

As a former convicted burglar, Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, knows what it’s like to have his voting rights stripped. Pardoned by Gov. Al Quie in 1982, he also knows what it’s like to have them restored.

“The day I was able to vote, I felt like I was part of society,” Dehn said Monday. “It allowed me to live a life that wasn’t shackled by those bad decisions.”

Dehn, who worked as an architect before becoming a legislator, wants more felons to share his experience without having to wait as long as he did after his release from custody—about seven years.

Secretary of State Steve Simon has Dehn’s back.

Dehn’s vote-restoration bill is one piece of Simon’s “Investing in Democracy” election reform package, which was highlighted during a Jan. 3 press conference. Simon described the reforms as bipartisan.

“They have been, in other states where that is applicable,” Simon said at the news conference. “And they ought to be in Minnesota.”

However, only DFL lawmakers stood with Simon as he publicly pitched the proposals.

Dehn’s part of the package would restore felons’ vote as soon as they get out of prison rather than wait until the end of their probations.

“I want to create a bright line,” Dehn said. “The push is to re-enfranchise people as much as we can once they get out of being locked up.”

If it passes, Dehn said that about 50,000 Minnesotans would have voting rights restored. That’s fewer than the 60,000 cited by Simon during the press conference; Dehn explained that the remaining 10,000 people are still in prison. His bill would not affect them before they are released.

His legislation is part of a four-piece reform proposal that also includes a bill from Sen. Carolyn Laine, DFL-Columbia Heights, to automatically register voters when they sign up for ID cards or driver’s licenses.

Another measure, sponsored by Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, would modify state law in time for Minnesota’s March 2020 presidential primary. To vote in that primary, voters must declare their affiliation with a political party and, as it stands, that data would be public.

The bill would allow the information to be shared with the national Democratic and Republican parties—which already happens. But it would not be shared with the general public.

“Your neighbor is not going to know what ballot you chose,” Rest said.

The final piece is Simon’s push for a legislative “permission slip” to release $6.6 million in federal funds already sitting in a Minnesota Management and Budget account. The money would be used to shore up election cybersecurity in the face of Russian hacking and other vulnerabilities, Simon said. That element already has vocal bipartisan support, Simon said.

Yet opposition to Simon’s entire plan is already forming. The Minnesota Voters Alliance, which has battled—and sued—Simon along several fronts over the years, will oppose the whole “Investing for Democracy” agenda. That’s according to Andy Cilek, the alliance’s executive director.

“We are actually working on a response to all of this legislation,” Cilek said Monday. “That includes what Simon really should be focused on, which is the problem of ineligible voting.”

Cilek, whose group won a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court case declaring part of Minnesota’s polling place political apparel ban invalid, also has an active pending suit against Simon before the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Last July, Ramsey County District Judge Jennifer Frisch granted Cilek’s group a summary judgment and ordered the release of data on tens of thousands of Minnesotans whose voting eligibility was challenged on Election Day 2016. The data also includes explanations as to why the voters were challenged.

“That is what the secretary of state doesn’t want,” Cilek said. “He doesn’t want to do the real job of the people, to make sure that they can have confidence in the election results. That’s our position.”

Simon’s appeal is due for a hearing on Jan. 24, Cilek said.

Senate obstacle

Dehn said he knew before drafting his vote-restoration bill that it would be challenged on several fronts—not the least of which is a Republican-controlled Senate.

“I know that the Senate may be a conversation that will be difficult around this,” he said.

Even if his measure clears the DFL-controlled House, it would still have to pass through at least two GOP-majority Senate committees on its way to the Senate floor—the Judiciary committee chaired by Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, and the State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee, chaired by Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake.

Kiffmeyer, in particular, is seen as friendly to Cilek’s group. Her 2017 election omnibus bill at one point sought to introduce provisional ballots into Minnesota’s election process. Provisional ballots would have been issued to any voter whose eligibility was challenged, but the measure did not become law.

Cilek contends that felon voting rights is none of the Legislature’s business. It’s a constitutional matter, he said, and if Dehn and his allies want to change it, a constitutional amendment must be put before voters.

He bases that contention on Article VII, Section I of the Minnesota Constitution, which in part says that “a person who has been convicted of treason or felony” may not vote “unless restored to civil rights.”

“The legislature doesn’t get to pick and choose that they can give a felon the voting right, prior to being restored to civil rights,” Cilek said. “They don’t have that option; it’s in the Constitution.”

What’s not in the Constitution is any other reference to “civil rights.” However, Article I, Section 2 does say this: “No member of this state shall be disfranchised or deprived of any of the rights or privileges secured to any citizen thereof, unless by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers.”

Meanwhile, Minnesota Statute 609.165 says that restoration of civil rights takes place upon a felon’s “discharge.” Discharge can happen in two ways: by order of the court following stay of sentence or stay of execution; or upon “the expiration of sentence.”

If Minnesota follows Dehn’s lead, it would join 14 other states and the District of Columbia in revoking felons’ voting rights only while they are incarcerated and in automatically restoring those rights upon release from custody.

Dehn had not yet attracted a Republican co-author to sign onto his bill as of Monday, but said he hoped to pull in one of more before submitting it to the House on Wednesday.

“I will have, hopefully, some Republican coauthors,” Dehn said. “And my hope is that Republican leadership will allow it to move forward. I think it is an issue whose time has come.”

If the Legislature does manage to pass the bill without putting the question before voters, Cilek said, his group will challenge the law’s constitutionality in court.

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