ST. PAUL, Minn.-- A Senate committee Thursday passed a bill that would restore voting rights to former felony offenders in Minnesota as soon as they're released from incarceration.
Currently an estimated 47,000 Minnesotans who've been released from jails or prisons aren't allowed to vote because they're on probation. Some went straight to probation and lost their voting privileges for long periods of time.
"How can you explain to people that they pay their taxes and they can't vote?" asked Demetria, one of many who lined up outside the hearing room at the State Capitol.
She has been sidelined from the polls since before the 2008 election, after being convicted of misusing a company credit card. Even though she served fewer than 60 days in the county work house, she won't be eligible to vote again until after 2019.
"I was raised in a family that valued religion and politics, and there's been an emptiness in my soul of not being able to fully participate."
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman testified in favor of the bill, which would make former offenders eligible to vote as soon as they're released, which is the standard in several states.
"When they're incarcerated they can't vote. That makes sense," Freeman told lawmakers. "But when they get out they still can't vote!"
Even Republican members of the Judiciary Committee voted with Democrats.
"When my kids do something wrong I don't, well you did something wrong, remember that! I forgive and I try to forget," Sen. Dan Hall, R - Burnsville, told his colleagues.
But some still assert losing the vote is part or the punishment.
"Do we have anyone here that's been a victim that's been brutally victimized by a felon, who now might be on probation," Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican, asked.
"If you immediately get your civil rights restored you really don't have to prove yourself, that you're ready to be a lawful citizen anymore."
But the bill's chief author, Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, assured Sen. Limmer that people on probation have a long list of conditions they must meet, and always face the possibility of more jail time if they're found to be in violation of those conditions.
"I think the victim would say, if we're talking about the victim, that they would say, 'I want that person's behavior to change, and I want them to be given an opportunity to change'," Sen. Champion, a criminal defense attorney, remarked.
Both the Senate bill and a companion measure in the House are enjoying bipartisan support, which has encouraged advocates of the idea. Backers say changing the rules would clear up a lot of confusion, both for election workers and the former offenders about when they're eligible to vote.