Groups educate ex-offenders about their right to voteby William Wilcoxen, Minnesota Public Radio
In Minnesota, an estimated 65,000 citizens of voting age will be ineligible to cast ballots Tuesday because they've been convicted of crimes. In nearly every state, a felony record brings a suspension of voting rights. But most of those states, including Minnesota, restore the vote to ex-offenders, once they've served their time and are released from parole or probation.
St. Paul, Minn. — Taking voting rights away from criminals is a practice as old as democracy itself. University of Minnesota sociologist Chistopher Uggen said it's common around the world.
"The logic is akin to banishment," said Uggen. "You cast out the offender."
Of course, preventing offenders from casting ballots does shrink the pool of voters, especially within certain demographic groups.
Sarah Walker is chief operating officer of the Minneapolis agency 180 Degrees, which helps ex-offenders make the transition back into society. Walker said in the last statewide election, about 2 percent of Minnesota's voting-age population was affected by the law that prohibits inmates, parolees, and probationers from voting.
"Two percent might not seem like a huge number, but when you break down the numbers, that's 14 percent of the African-Americans in Minnesota and 25 percent of the African-American men," said Walker.
Some of the men who can't vote Tuesday live above Walker's basement office, in a halfway house operated by 180 Degrees. Walker said crowds formed around the television during the presidential debates.
In the dining room one recent morning, Aaron Cokely said he's been following the presidential race religiously since the Iowa caucuses. Cokely said his interest in the election is undiminished by the fact that his probation will keep him from voting.
"Even though I can't vote, there are still things I can do," Cokely said. "I can rally support for my candidate, I can give money to the campaign, I can give moral support, stuff like that. There's stuff you can do."
Another agency that helps ex-offenders adjust to society is Goodwill Easter Seals. Andre Corbett works for Goodwill, leading a work readiness program for former inmates.
Corbett showed a visitor around the agency's sprawling warehouse in St. Paul's Midway neighborhood, where forklifts moved huge bundles of clothing.
Corbett is equipped to work with ex-offenders in part because he is one -- having spent three and a half years in state prisons in St. Cloud, Rush City, Moose Lake, and Faribault.
Corbett said political interest actually runs pretty high in prisons, especially when it comes to policies that affect the job market inmates plan to enter upon release. Corbett has voted only once, in 2000, and is excited about casting a ballot on Tuesday.
"I got off parole Aug. 1, and I went and voted in the primaries," said Corbett. "That was probably the proudest I'd felt in quite a while -- just being able to have the sticker and go in and check it off."
Corbett even enjoys calls from campaign offices, relishing the chance to tell them yes, he will be voting on Nov. 4.
But many other former inmates don't realize that once they're released from parole or probation they're again eligible to vote in Minnesota.
Sarah Walker of 180 Degrees said her group has banded together with others in a Restore Your Vote Coalition that's working with Minneapolis and Hennepin County to educate potential voters.
Walker said the county will soon begin including voter registration cards in materials that are sent to former inmates when they complete their probation.
"One of the problems is, the population is transient," Walker said. "The first address out of prison is often not the last one. The vast majority of this mail gets returned. So we want to help expand the public education about this."
Laws about felons and voting vary from state to state. The U of M's Uggen said in 14 states, some or all felons do not regain their voting rights, even when they finish parole or probation.
At the other extreme, two states allow inmates to cast absentee ballots from prison. Uggen, co-author of a book on felon disenfranchisement, agrees there is a need to improve understanding of the law in Minnesota.
"I did a number of interviews in Minnesota institutions, and there was a prevasive belief that there was a 10-year waiting period, which does not exist," Uggen said. "There are 10-year waiting periods for other things but not for voting. And I was struck by how confident people were in this belief, whether they were inmates or folks responsible for registration in an election."
Uggen said his research also found that former inmates who vote are less likely to re-offend.
Sarah Walker said 180 Degrees and other groups will urge lawmakers next year to change Minnesota's law, so that felons are eligible to vote when they're released from prison, instead of waiting until they're off parole or probation.
Walker said such a change would reduce the number of Minnesotans prohibited from voting from 65,000 to about 20,000 people.
- All Things Considered, 10/31/2008, 5:24 p.m.