Robert Stewart, a doctoral student, is one of thousands who can't vote in 2014 election
Believe it or not, state representatives Raymond Dehn (left) and Tony Cornish agree on something: giving felons the right to vote
Rob Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate at the U of M. He works. He pays taxes. But come November, while his neighbors and colleagues are casting ballots, Stewart will stay away from the polling station.
Why? Because he's a convicted felon with a serious drug offense on his record.
In Minnesota and several other states, people like Stewart do not regain the right to vote until they have completed all of the terms of their sentence, including probation and supervision, which can span decades.
State Rep. Ray Dehn (DFL-Minneapolis) introduced a bill last spring to change that by restoring a felon's right immediately after release, and has since been pushing it outside the Capitol. At a north Minneapolis block party last week, he got a warm reception when he told the crowd, "If people are working and paying taxes, the least we could do would be to give them the right to vote."
A companion bill was also introduced last session in the Senate by another North Side democrat, Bobby Champion, with support coming from the Restore the Vote Coalition, the state county attorney association, the NAACP, and others. They say felony convictions prevented 63,000 Minnesotans from voting in the 2012 election, citing the work of Christopher Uggen, a U of M sociologist and co-author of Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy.
Uggen has become something of a national advocate as he's highlighted voting disparities among the states. Maine and Vermont allow inmates to vote
while in prison. Others, including Florida
, take away the right to vote for the rest of a felon's life.
The assumption is that if you commit a crime once, you're likely to do it again. However, Uggen's research suggests that voting has a psychological affect on people that might reduce the chances of recidivism. If you participate in your community, you're probably less likely to mess it up.
The public appears to be split on reform. The 2014 State Fair poll, though far from scientific, asked people whether felons should be allowed to regain "their right to vote immediately upon release from a correctional facility?" Forty-three percent of Minnesotans said yes, 47 said no, and 9 percent were undecided.
State Rep. Tony Cornish, a sponsor of Dehn's bill, anticipates the greatest opposition to come from his fellow tough-on-crime Republicans who believe some offenses, like child molestation, are so bad that the felon ought not be able to influence public policy.
Cornish is not exactly a bleeding heart -- the retired cop once wore a semi-automatic rifle pin to a gun control hearing -- yet he can empathize with a man or woman who wants to reintegrate into society. For him, restoring the right to vote is a matter of "redemption and compassion."
While incarcerated, Stewart sobered up. Starting in 2007, he served only 25 of his 100 month-sentence thanks to an early release boot-camp program, then went on to graduate from college with high honors. He's currently in the third year of a doctoral program at the U of M, where he studies the post-prison experience in the sociology department.
Stewart won't be able to vote again until his supervision ends next year. But he's already looking forward to Election Day 2016, when he'll be able to say, "I'm a regular person just like everyone else," and mean it.
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