Formerly incarcerated felons in Minnesota will now be able to vote after a new law restoring their rights was signed by the state’s governor.
Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed a bill on Friday which gives convicted felons who have completed their jail time the right to vote.
Now, 55,000 individuals who were previously deprived of those rights can register to vote, the most significant expansion of that right in Minnesota in a half-century, according to the governor’s office.
‘Minnesotans who have completed time for their offenses and are living, working, and raising families in their communities deserve the right to vote,’ Walz said.
The state is just one of at least 14, including Oregon, Tennessee and Texas, that have made proposals to affect similar changes, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
An Oregon proposal would allow felons to vote while incarcerated. A Tennessee bill would automatically restore voting rights once a sentence is completed, except for a small group of crimes. Texas legislation would restore voting rights to those on probation or parole.
The bill signed by Walz on Friday means rights will be restored to convicted felons as soon as they get out of prison. Another bill currently moving through the New Mexico Legislature would do the same.
‘Restoring voting rights really is an issue where we’ve seen bipartisan momentum,’ said Patrick Berry, counsel for the Democracy program at the Brennan Center.
More than 4.6 million people are disenfranchised in the United States because of felony convictions, according to the Sentencing Project, which studies the issue and advocates for restoration of voting rights for former felons.
Laws vary by state, based on pardon requirements, payment of fines, fees and child support, and when a sentence (including probation and parole) is considered complete.
The impacts fall disproportionately on people of color, especially black citizens, who account for one-third of the total disenfranchised population while making up about 12 percent of the overall population.
TJ King, who couldn’t vote in Nebraska’s last election is one person who would benefit from such changes.
King, 51, fought addiction for years and spent five years in prison after being convicted of possessing ecstasy and theft by deception, ending probation last August.
King works in the HIV/AIDS field and volunteers at various organizations, but said voting is still the most direct way to be involved and became tearful when talking about his inability to vote.
‘I felt so hopeless and helpless not being able to have my voice heard in this last election,’ he said. ‘There are a lot of things that were on the ballot here in Nebraska that hit home with a lot of things that I advocate for.’
He is now an outreach specialist with the Nebraska AIDS Project and came off probation in August after serving time for drug and theft convictions.
In many states, he could have voted in the November general election, but Nebraska requires a two-year wait after the completion of a felony sentence before someone can register.
His first chance to vote will be in the 2024 presidential election season, unless a legislative proposal introduced in January passes and removes that two-year requirement.
Voting, King said in an interview, gives ‘a little bit of your strength back and a little bit of your voice back. Being able to vote, being able to have a say in what happens in your society, in your state, is extremely important.’
Restoring the voting rights of former felons drew national attention after Florida lawmakers weakened a voter-approved constitutional amendment and after a new election police unit championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis arrested 20 former felons.
Several of them said they were confused by the arrests because they had been allowed to register to vote.
Attempts like those to discourage ex-felons from voting appear to be an outlier among the states, even as some Republican-led states continue to restrict voting access in other ways.
In Nebraska, nearly 18,000 people are unable to vote because of felony convictions, said the Sentencing Project’s director of advocacy, Nicole Porter. That includes 7,072 who fall under the two-year wait requirement and are currently unable to cast a ballot. The rest have not completed their full sentences.