Group fighting to restore voting rights to felons on probationby Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — As the November election gets closer, there's a push underway to restore voting rights to the nearly 46,000 adults living and working in the state that are disqualified from voting because they're on probation for a felony conviction.
Together, they're a population roughly the size of a Twin Cities' suburb like St. Louis Park or Edina.
Marlin Meszaros, 37, has been following the campaign for governor closely.
"I even asked a couple people, sent out some text messages and stuff for the primary to say 'hey if you're not (voting), you know, do it for me,'" Meszaros said.
Meszaros can't vote because he's one of thousands of voting-age Minnesotans on probation for a felony conviction. Like several other states, Minnesota has always barred people with that status from voting in federal or state elections.
That can mean many missed trips to the voting booth. People can be on probation for one year to twenty years, or more.
Meszaros has a long rap sheet. He said he was most recently convicted for carrying a bag that tested positive for methamphetamine.
Now a construction worker, he said this time he's made it through treatment and is trying to get on the right path. But he can't vote until 2013, when he's successfully completed five years of probation.
"To be quite honest, I've served quite a bit of prison time and I've seen things in the criminal justice system that need to be addressed," he said. "I've just come to the realization that the only way that them things will be changed is if people speak about it."
And people speak, he said, through their vote. The Second Chance Coalition, a group state agencies and non-profits, plans to push legislation this coming session giving Meszaros and other probationers that right.
"At the most basic level, it's about making our democracy and community stronger," said Mark Haase, with One-Hundred Eighty Degrees, an ex-offender support organization that's part of the second Chance coalition.
"Intuitively, I think we know that if we want people to not commit crimes we want them to participate fully in the community and feel like they're part of the community," Haase said.
Haase also worries about how this could skew minority representation at the polls. Minnesota's minority population is relatively small, but they're over-represented in the state's criminal justice system.
That means the state's communities of color are losing a larger percentage of their potential votes, according to a 2009 report by University of Minnesota Sociology Professor Chris Uggen.
About 10 percent of voting-age African Americans in Minnesota lose their right to vote because they're in prison or on probation. The number is nearly 7 percent for American Indians.
Meanwhile, only 1 percent of the state's white voters lose the right to vote, and the disparities are growing larger.
"As the criminal justice population has grown so too have the numbers disenfranchised," Uggen said.
Uggen said the number of people in Minnesota who can't vote because they're in prison or on probation has gone up by nearly 700 percent over the last 35 years. The majority are on probation.
He said the consequences of this population losing their right to vote may be far-reaching.
"Being disenfranchised has a chilling effect on political discourse and participation beyond just voting, and one of the things that's rather ominous about that is that those effects could really be intergenerational," Uggen said.
Uggen said the children of the incarcerated may also be alienated and distrustful of government.
But there are also arguments against giving probationers the right to vote.
Dan McGrath is executive director of the conservative group Majority Minnesota. They conducted a study that alleges there were illegal votes cast by felons in 2008 general election.
County prosecutors looking into those findings have charged a few dozen felons with registering to vote or voting. Others are under review.
McGrath said not being able to vote is part of the punishment for a felony.
"It comes down to don't do the crime if you can't do the time. And that's part of the time," McGrath said.
McGrath questions whether the general public wants people who flouted laws to have a hand in crafting them. His group opposes any legislation that would allow people on probation for felonies to vote.
"If legislation does come up in this legislative session you can bet that our membership base is going to be highly motivated to defeat it," he said.
McGrath said that opposition shouldn't be underestimated -- without giving an exact figure; he puts Majority Minnesota's membership in the tens of thousands.
- Morning Edition, 09/20/2010, 7:25 a.m.