Daris Nordby’s life has been filled with mistakes, and if he’s due any credit at all, it can be for his willingness to own up to them and take responsibility. His first felony conviction, for possession of methamphetamine, came at age 16. His first of 890 days behind bars came in 2010 after he threatened a guy while under the influence of meth. Another felony followed after a domestic dispute and a regrettable push to the neck, again while on meth.
Nordby is out of jail and has been sober for a year now, but the reminders of all that he did and of who he is - a felon - dog him relentlessly. He can’t find housing. He lived with a girlfriend for a while but moved out when she started using and he no longer wanted to. He can’t find work. He had a job cleaning a department store at night but lost it when the homeless shelter where he started staying in February said he couldn’t sleep there during the day.
“I’ve experienced many barriers and hindrances during this process of changing my life to be a productive member of society,” said Nordby, 27, who grew up near St. Cloud and moved to Duluth to get away from the people in his hometown who he knew would keep selling him drugs, keep him using and lead him back toward trouble. He came to Duluth for help from the Bethel Port Rehabilitation Center, where he spent six months. He came here to save his life.
“My biggest issue now is the voting thing,” he said. “I feel that if I did my time and I paid for my past (and if) I’m trying to be a productive member of society, I should have a voice. I should be able to have a say in what goes on in my community . … I should have the right to vote.”
Wait, what? Despite being homeless, jobless and one bad decision away from no longer being sober, did Nordby really just claim that the biggest issue in his life right now is the Minnesota Constitution forbidding felons like him from voting while they’re still “on paper,” meaning still on probation or on parole?
Doesn’t matter. Even if it really is his No. 1, and even if a bunch of groups determined to allow felons to vote aren’t just highlighting his story to further their own cause, there’s this: There’s little reason not to allow felons to vote once they’ve done their time and are supposed to be acclimating back into society, as Nordby and the groups contend. Thirteen other states already allow them to vote - both blue states and red states.
Minnesota can be next. Legislation under consideration this session in St. Paul deserves passage, proponents say. It already has growing bipartisan support.
Yes, the prohibition on felons voting is written into Minnesota’s Constitution, a document revered, as it should be.
“But in 1858 when our Constitution was enacted, we had about 35 people in prison (and) there were about 75 felony crimes on the books. Today there are over 370 felony crimes.” In other words, times have changed, said Jason Adkins, executive director of the St. Paul-based Minnesota Catholic Conference, one of six groups represented when Nordby was interviewed at the News Tribune last week, all of them members of the Restore the Vote Coalition.
“Your civil rights are not restored until your full sentence is completed. The Constitution gives the authority to the Legislature to determine exactly when that is. Historically, that’s the full sentence (including probation and parole),” Adkins said. “Some people think, ‘Oh, a felony, that’s murder, rape, some of these dangerous crimes.’ But the definition of felony has greatly expanded since 1858. So many things today are felonies, including drug-possession crimes. One big transition we’ve had in the criminal justice system since 1858 is we do have a system of probation and parole that really wasn’t contemplated by the framers of our Constitution. … So, just as our criminal justice system has changed, we think it’s time for a deliberate rethinking of this current policy.”
Minnesota has low incarceration rates and, as a result, lengthy probation and parole terms, some of them spanning decades. That’s a long and unnecessary wait for voting rights to be restored, Jana Kooren of the St. Paul-based ACLU of Minnesota argued.
“These are people living in the community. They’re paying taxes. Their kids attend school. They’re working. They’re fully participating in everything, yet they’re denied the right to vote.
How is that right?” Kooren asked at the News Tribune. “Taking away the right to vote is a punishment that does nothing to deter crime. It’s not helping anything. It’s not making things better. … When people participate in their community in a positive way it reduces recidivism. … If (society has) decided you’re ready to live in the community, then that should be when you should be able to vote.”
In St. Louis County, about 1,800 people a year return from incarceration, about 240 of them on supervised release, according to SOAR Career Solutions of Duluth, which helps released offenders re-enter society. Not allowing them to vote is one way they’re set up to fail, SOAR Executive Director Emily Edison said.
“Our folks really, really try hard, and every time they turn the corner, it seems, they can’t find housing. They can’t get employment because of their background. They just can’t do anything, so, frankly, why wouldn’t they go back (to their lawless ways)? It’s a lot easier when you don’t even have a voice in your own community,” Edison said. “We all deserve a second chance. You did your crime and you served the time, so you should have a right to give back to the community that you took something from.”
For Nordby, being allowed to vote would eliminate one reminder of his troubled past and one barrier keeping him from a future he knows can be better. It may not seem like much, but it’s not too much to ask.
“I feel I’ve paid my debt in full,” Nordby said. “I’m a citizen. I deserve the same rights as any other citizen in this free country gets. I should have the right to vote. Any felon should.”
Chuck Frederick is the News Tribune’s editorial page editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.