Some Minnesota Felons Can Get Guns with Silencers, But They Can't Vote

Jason Sole went from prison to having a Ph.D., but he won't be able to vote for another 11 years.

Jason Sole went from prison to having a Ph.D., but he won't be able to vote for another 11 years.

Thanks to the Minnesota Legislature, everyone can now own guns with silencers — including certain felons who have served their prison sentences — but many more still on probation can't cast a vote.

Minnesota had a clear shot this session at finally restoring voting rights for 47,000 people on parole or probation. But the Republican House leadership edited the measure out of a judiciary bill. When that bill eventually passed in late April, it legalized silencers to great cheers from the gun lobby.

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"That sends out a clear message that they want people to get away with murder. What do you need a suppressor for?" asks Jason Sole, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University and three-time ex-felon. "Yet we're talking about voting, a civil liberty, giving people the chance to cast a ballot and be a part of the political process. It just shows what they value more."

Sole's first and only vote was cast during the 2004 presidential election. He won't be able to legally vote until his probation is up in 2026. The last time he was in prison, it was for getting caught with an ounce of crack 10 years ago.

Those were the lowest years of his life. Sole had gotten caught up with youth gangs on the South Side of Chicago, getting shot and getting pinched for gun possession. He'd tried to stay on the straight and narrow until about the eighth grade, when his early-morning newspaper delivery route put him in the path of prostitutes, drug dealers, crooked cops, and pedophiles. He decided he'd rather sell drugs than deliver papers for pocket money.

Now Sole's got a doctorate in public safety. He's a father, a taxpayer, and a teacher who leads his law enforcement students into prisons to study with inmates. "I've made good on my second chance, but when it comes to voting, I still feel like I'm locked out," he says. "It's excessive punishment."

There are many other ways felons are kept separated from general society. They're already scorned by employers and creditors and landlords — withholding the vote only discourages people from caring about the public good, says Nathanael Doehling.

Doehling, a voting rights activist who's just completed his probation for fifth-degree drug possession, spent this legislative session calling greater Minnesota for support on restoring the vote. What he heard was a lot of, "Thugs don't vote" or "Keep them in the hood."

"The way they spoke about it, it was like we weren't even worth opening the jail doors for, like they just wanted me to stay in there," Doehling says. Countless other people would tell him that even though they may be eligible to vote, they had family members, co-workers, neighbors, and church friends who weren't.

Former felons who'd completed probation were never sure if they'd get turned away at the polling station — "I'm out here telling people if you've completed your sentence, you can vote. But they've been disenfranchised for so long, they don't know," Doehling says.

Historically, the law says that felons must complete their sentences before they're allowed to vote. That policy preceded modern America's mass incarceration and decade-long probation orders, says Justin Terrell of TakeAction Minnesota, which has been leading the campaign to make House Speaker Kurt Daudt take notice of Restore the Vote legislation.

The bill had strong bipartisan support this year, Terrell says. TakeAction rounded up more than 50 constituents from Daudt's district of Crown to flood his voicemail with messages of support for the bill. TakeAction camped outside Daudt's offices and rallied outside the Capitol while projecting portraits of disenfranchised people on the giant tarp hanging on the side of the Capitol building.

Daudt wouldn't give up a single hearing.

"Honestly, Minnesota has some of the worst racial disparities in the country, and one of them is voting," Terrell says. "The fact is, we all know there's a problem, we proposed a solution, and lawmakers who claim to support it chose not to advocate for it despite our efforts."

People in the community are not pleased, Terrell says. "We're not going to go down without a fight."

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