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MN Governor Signs Law Giving Voting Rights Back to Formerly Incarcerated People

The law is “the largest expansion of voting rights in Minnesota in half a century,” the governor said.

At the end of a line of voting booths, a person casts their ballot for an unspecified election.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed a bill on Friday that grants formerly incarcerated residents in the state the right to vote immediately upon their release from prison.

Currently, residents who are released from prison after being convicted of a felony are forced to wait until the conditions of their probation expire before being able to vote again.

The legislation, which will go into effect on July 1, removes that stipulation and allows formerly incarcerated people to vote as soon as they are released.

The move immediately restores access to the ballot for around 55,000 people in the state, making it “the largest expansion of voting rights in Minnesota in half a century,” Walz said in a tweet.

“Minnesota will continue to lead in the fight to keep our elections safe, free, and fair for all,” the governor added.

The bill was passed in the Democratic Party-controlled state legislature earlier this year after several years of litigation challenging the previous standard for voting rights. In 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the state, arguing that the old standard violated the state constitution on voting rights for residents. In February of this year, the state Supreme Court ordered the state legislature to take up the issue as a result of that lawsuit, which Democrats had already been considering.

State Attorney General Keith Ellison (D) celebrated the passage of the law.

“People who are prohibited from voting, they have to pay their taxes, they have to obey all the laws, they have to do everything, but they don’t have any choice in who represents them,” Ellison said in a statement. “Now they do.”

The new law is “going to allow me to feel my humanity so much more,” said Elizer Darris, a formerly incarcerated person who has been on probation and unable to vote since 2016. “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.”

Many voting rights advocates noted that the law is a step in the right direction, but called for states to stop disenfranchising incarcerated people altogether.

“Those of us in prison are severely affected by our inability to vote,” wrote Joseph Dole, who is serving life in prison without parole for a crime he says he didn’t commit, in an op-ed for Truthout in 2021.

“For numerous reasons the disenfranchisement of people in prison helps to ensure that they serve more time in prison,” Dole said. “This does not serve any true penological or public safety goal. Rather, it largely just serves to benefit the personal political careers of judges and legislators, many of whom have already retired.”

Dole went on:

Being disenfranchised means we cannot vote for legislators who will look out for our interests — who will pass laws to stop our exploitation, require a living wage for prison labor, ensure we receive adequate medical care, have access to educational programming, and more.

“Denying someone the right to vote is an extremely dehumanizing act,” he continued. “Rather than further ostracizing people in prison — the majority of whom will return to their communities someday — society should work to increase people’s attachments to society. Restoring people’s right to vote while in prison would go a long way toward engendering feelings of belonging to society.”

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