Two bills introduced in this year's legislative session, House File 40 and Senate File 856, are taking another run at changing our voting laws to allow felons to vote while on parole or probation.
Sadly, neither bill makes a distinction between violent or non-violent crimes; therefore, they are essentially seeking to change election law to allow every person who has been convicted of molesting a child, battering a spouse, engaging in sex trafficking, or any of 35 statutorily defined "violent" crimes to vote while serving the parole and probation terms of their sentences.
Forget the abused child, the injured spouse, or the victims of sexual abuse. Members of this new class of victims - multiple offenders among them - need, according to proponents, to have their voting rights restored prematurely. Then these lawbreakers can exercise their lack of concern for the community by helping to shape our civic leadership.
I think it is fair to characterize support for the bills as caring for the human person who happens to have committed a crime. We with the Minnesota Voters Alliance are happy to share those concerns, but doing so does not address the public-policy issues in play when changing the law. Public policy must take into account the law and protecting members of the community.
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 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 murderer, rapist, arsonist, and armed robber - with no regard to the circumstances of the particular offender.
This legislation would permit, according to backers, approximately 60,000 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 on the States, over 60 percent of felons released from prison in Minnesota are back in prison within three years. This is the highest rate of recidivism in the country, despite the extensive rehabilitation and opportunity programs designed to prevent 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 interested in subverting the public good. Minnesota already gives felons a "second chance" - once they complete their sentences. Allowing them to vote before that is really a "second risk" for law-abiding voters.
It is harmful public policy to allow a murderer or someone who has committed armed robbery, threatened a judge, or attacked a police officer to automatically regain the right to vote for judges, sheriffs, and county attorneys while still under their supervision.
Article VII, Section 1 of the Minnesota Constitution has provided more than 160 years of straight talk on this issue. It says that felons may not vote "unless restored to civil rights." Felons on parole or probation have not had their civil rights restored. Before finishing their complete 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, perhaps because the conclusion is apparent.
Legislators backing felon voting prior to the restoration of civil rights should remember that they swore an oath to defend the Minnesota Constitution. If the Legislature passes this bill, it will be unconstitutional, plain and simple. Changing the Minnesota Constitution to allow felons to vote prior to having their civil rights restored would require a constitutional amendment and a statewide vote by all the people.
Andy Cilek is executive director of the Minnesota Voters Alliance (mnvoters.org), an election-integrity watchdog group based in Roseville, Minn.