Minnesota returns voting power to thousands. The question is whether they’ll use it

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MINNEAPOLIS — Inside layers of heavy steel doors and locked gates of the Stillwater correctional facility in Bayport, Minn., Secretary of State Steve Simon stood before 15 inmates approaching their prison release.

“Can I ask a quick question?” Simon said to the men assembled to get pointers on how to transition back into society. “If you care to say, how many of you have voted in the past, in any election?”

Only a few hands went up.

“Man, you got political power the minute you step out of here and it’s a gift. Use your power, use your voice. That’s my advice,” Minnesota’s head election official, a Democrat, told them during an August stop. “I know you have a ton of other things to think about. But I just hope this is on the list.”

Voter registration forms will be included in their prison discharge packets. And they won’t have to wait even a day to fill them out, thanks to a state law enacted earlier this year that restores voting rights immediately rather than upon completion of supervised release or probation.

Minnesota is among the latest states — New Mexico passed a similar law this year — to speed up restoration of voting eligibility to the formerly incarcerated and others with felony records, though other states have restricted access.

The law change in Minnesota is estimated to affect more than 55,000 people still serving some stage of a sentence outside a jail or prison wall.

The challenge is to get them to use those voting rights.

Robert Clark, due to leave Stillwater in October on his 34th birthday, said he’ll definitely be signing up to vote.

“I wanted people to understand that we have a voice and it’s not just because we’ve been to prison that we’re bad people and they’re going to count us out,” Clark said after meeting with Simon.

Derek Burgess, 34, is also on the cusp of freedom. He volunteered to fellow inmates and the visitors in suits that he’s also motivated to vote.

“This is going to get me in trouble,” Burgess said. “I’m a Trump supporter and my significant other is a Democrat. You feel me? And now I can vote when I get out in the next couple of weeks?”

“Yes,” Simon answered.

“This is crazy, man,” Burgess replied. “You all about to get me in trouble, man.”

A lower participation rate

Sarah Walker, a Democratic consultant who has worked on re-enfranchisement efforts around the country, said even though more states have passed laws or lowered obstacles through executive order, voter participation is a challenge.

“This group has historically not been targeted by voter engagement. So I think that’s one barrier,” Walker said. “You have to make a conscious effort to actually engage this population.”

One analysis by the nonprofit Marshall Project, which studies criminal justice trends, found that fewer than a quarter of newly eligible voters with felony records registered for the following presidential election. That is far lower than registration rates for other voters.

Minnesota election and corrections officials said it’s a metric they’ll be watching, but they won’t have initial data until after this year’s elections. Minnesota only has local races on November’s ballot, so turnout in general is likely to be low.

Walker said standards that differ by state feed confusion about eligibility. That can make people hesitant to vote out of fear they’ll get tangled up again in the justice system. She added that who delivers the message is also key.

“If you have a shared life experience and lived experience, you’re going to have more credibility with someone who can relate to you,” Walker said.

“Brother, you can vote”

Antonio Williams, 37, joined a canvas this summer in St. Paul, among several formerly incarcerated people who fanned out in a neighborhood with clipboards and voter forms also accessible through QR codes. It was the first day registration was permitted under the new law.

Williams served 13 years on a murder accessory conviction. He’s been out of prison for a few years, but without the new law wouldn’t have regained voting eligibility until 2025.

He leaned into the open window of a parked car and struck up a conversation with a man inside.

“It don’t matter if you are on parole, probation, none of that. If you are not incarcerated, your voting rights are automatically restored,” Williams said.

The man shared that he had recently come out of prison, too.

“Brother, you can vote. You can vote. I’m still on parole and probation right now,” Williams said. “So I’m asking, can I register you to vote?”

Williams is anticipating a rush of feelings when he goes to the polls this year for municipal elections.

“Now here I am able to vote. It’s real, but it’s still like one of those things until I cast my ballot,” Williams said. “You know, then it’s gonna be like, ‘Oh, wow, I just did it.’ ”

Minnesota’s law is being challenged by a conservative group over the way it was enacted, although prior rulings deferred to the Legislature in deciding when somebody can return to the voter rolls. A court hearing is set for October.

“Just because somebody had a past, you can change that”

There are other signs of growing acceptance of the formerly incarcerated in political life.

Miranda Pacheco advanced earlier this month through a primary election for city council in Duluth, the fifth-largest city in Minnesota.

“Up until very recently, I hadn’t had the right to vote,” Pacheco said. “A few months ago, Duluth hadn’t heard of me.”

Pacheco spent her childhood dealing with abuse, teen pregnancy and housing instability. Her 20s and 30s were marked by bouts with addiction and transgressions from theft to drug crimes that landed her a felony record.

Now 43, Pacheco moved off probation in April and well beyond her troubled past — while keeping that part of her life front and center, even in a campaign.

“It’s just me. Like, I can’t lie. I can’t hide it. That is my strength,” she said. “I turned my life around, right?”

She understands that November could bring more elation — or a letdown. But Pacheco said either way she feels like she’s been invited back into society and been given power through her vote.

And Pacheco, who cast her first-ever vote for herself, knows there’s extra significance in her story.

“I want to help empower people. And so if people could see, you know, like, ‘Hey, look, Miranda’s a felon,’ ” she said in an interview. “Just because somebody had a past, you can change that.”

Copyright 2023 MPR News.