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Dayton advocates voting rights for released felons: Measure has passed Senate but faces some opposition in House

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton would like formerly imprisoned felons to be able to vote in Minnesota, he said Wednesday. "We should let people who have served their sentences, paid their debt to society, be given their chance to restore t...

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton would like formerly imprisoned felons to be able to vote in Minnesota, he said Wednesday.

“We should let people who have served their sentences, paid their debt to society, be given their chance to restore their active participation in our ... democratic process,” the Democratic-Farmer-Labor governor said.

With his comments, Dayton waded into a debate that has roiled the state and nation. On Tuesday, the Minnesota Senate approved a measure to allow felons to vote after they served their sentences.

Last week, Virginia’s governor used his executive power to restore voting rights to felons who are on supervised release in that state.  Other states have also grappled with laws that limit felons ability to vote evening after they have served their prison sentences.

Dayton said he would like to negate Minnesota’s law, which bans felons from voting if they are on probation or supervised release, unilaterally as did the governor of Virginia. But, he said, he lacks that authority.

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“We looked very carefully to see what the boundaries are,” the governor said. “I think people who have served their time and paid their debt to society deserve to be re-enfranchised as citizens of this country.”

Dayton has some bipartisan company in that sentiment. Although allowing those who have served prison time to vote largely has support from Democrats, including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and many DFLers in the Minnesota Legislature, Republicans have also supported changes to the felon voting rules.

Last year, a measure to restore the vote to felons after their imprisonment had both Republican and Democratic co-sponsors, including the Republican chair of the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center. But Cornish said the measure lacked support to win approval in the House and did not bring it up for a hearing.

Those who support changing Minnesota’s law say it would clarify who could vote and who could not. Out of prison? You could vote. Supporters also say allowing felons to vote would allow people who had reformed a full integration into society.

“If we want to be good citizens to move forward, why would we want to restrict them the right to vote?” Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis said Tuesday on the Senate floor.

But opponents say changing the law to allow all felons to vote once they get out of prison would lighten the punishment for offenders. Supervised release or probation is often part of their punishment.

“My question then is: Is this for justice for the victims?” said Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville.

If Minnesota allowed felons to vote when they are released from prison, estimates are it would add between 50,000 and 74,000 Minnesotans to the voter rolls.

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By Rachel Stassen-Berger

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