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Guest Opinion: Allowing felons under supervision the right to vote is unconstitutional

The DFL controlled Minnesota Senate recently passed legislation to restore voting rights to convicted felons once they've been released from prison, even if still on probation or parole.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

The DFL controlled Minnesota Senate recently passed legislation to restore voting rights to convicted felons once they've been released from prison, even if still on probation or parole.

This legislation, which allows all felons to vote while still serving their sentences, is unconstitutional. The bill undermines the very purpose of criminal sentences, rewards habitual offenders, and allows un-rehabilitated criminals to vote in elections that will impact the judges, sheriffs, and county attorneys who are responsible for their supervision.

Article VII, Section 1 of the Minnesota Constitution has provided more than 150 years of straight talk on this issue. It says that felons may not vote "unless restored to civil rights." A felon on parole or probation has not had their civil rights restored. Prior to finishing their sentences, felons are commonly denied the right to travel freely, restricted from associating with other offenders, and required to live under government supervision. The Legislature has neither considered nor sought a legal analysis of this question.

During this session of the Legislature, treatment of the felon voting bill has included no consideration of the Minnesota Constitution and no accounting for differences between violent and non-violent offenders.

Support of the felon voting bill is dominated by members of one party. Due to the lack of bipartisan support, the bill failed to obtain a hearing in the Minnesota House. The deceptive attempt to bury this legislation in an "omnibus" bill where there will be no direct, separate vote to make this historic change to the law is destructive to the legislative process.

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Criminal sentences are imposed to protect law-abiding citizens from those who have shown a willingness to harm others. Felonies are serious crimes that always have one or more victims. Felons are not the victims here. Legislators should be supporting the findings and determinations of judges, not overruling them and substituting an unthinking grant of partial "pardon" to every rapist, child molester, and armed robber alike, with no regard to the circumstances of the particular offender. This legislation would permit (proponents say) more than 47,000 felons statewide to vote before they have shown they can live in the community and abide by its laws.

According to research conducted by the Pew Center, over 60 percent of felons released from prison in Minnesota are back in prison within three years. This is the highest percentage of recidivism in the country, despite all of the extensive rehabilitation and opportunity programs designed to prevent re-offense. Being released from prison doesn't make a felon law-abiding, and automatically granting them the right to vote is no magic bullet that will prevent them from re-offending. This legislation would allow thousands of felons the right to vote between imprisonments. Our elections must be protected from the participation of those who are interested in subverting the public good.

Minnesota already gives felons a "second chance" when they have completed their sentences unlike Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia, where voting rights are removed for the life of the felon.

Proponents of changing the law are focused almost entirely on what they view as good for the felon, rather than being concerned with the rights of law-abiding citizens. Proponents claim that allowing a newly released criminal to vote will keep them on the straight and narrow. If voting is such a strong motivator for felons, then the current system which rewards them after they have shown the ability to abide by the law is the proper policy. Felons are proud of having earned back their right to vote.

It is harmful public policy to allow a murderer or someone who has threatened a judge, attacked a police officer, or someone who has schemed millions of dollars from people, automatically regain the right to vote for judges or sheriffs or county attorneys while he is still under their supervision.

We ask members of the community (respectfully) to help legislators understand this legislation and urge them reject it.

Andrew Cilek is executive director of Minnesota Voters Alliance.

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