Questions of this nature—though hardly a new trend—have reemerged in the national discourse. Here in Minnesota, it’s an issue that’s displayed sharp divides between DFLers and their Republican counterparts—especially this political session, with a DFL-proposed House bill that would grant felons the right to vote while on probation once they’ve completed their stint in prison.
Politicians of the Brainerd lakes area—all of them members of the GOP—didn’t stray far from Republican orthodoxy on the subject, though talks with the Dispatch revealed potential for discussion on how punitive measures should be exacted and how the state factors in the larger issue of mass incarceration.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in the United States roughly 2.2 million people are incarcerated, while a further 6 million in total are denied the right to vote based on criminal status—which, it should be noted, is a matter of nuance that depends on the state.
Vermont and Maine allow prisoners to vote while incarcerated. At the same time, Kentucky and Iowa stand on the opposite end of the spectrum and withhold felons the right to vote as a lifelong ban once they’ve been convicted. The other 46 states fall somewhere in between, typically restoring voting rights to felons upon completion of prison time, probation or any other forms of restitution, as Minnesota does at this time.
As recently as 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported there were roughly 16,300 felons incarcerated in Minnesota prisons. In early 2018, speakers at the Gordon Rosenmeier Forum noted 1,215 people, or 2% of Crow Wing County’s population, have a felony-level conviction on their record. An estimated 494 of these people were cited for drug-related charges.
Area legislators respond
Local elected officials—including state Reps. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa; John Poston, R-Lake Shore; and Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin; as well as state Sens. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point—gave their thoughts on the ongoing debate. Heintzeman declined to comment by phone and opted to submit his answers via email.
• Gazelka said—while his position is always based on defending the rights of victims first—it should be noted Minnesota sits at 47th in the nation (50 states, plus Washington D.C.) in terms of incarceration rates, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
While he noted he wasn’t in favor of granting felons the right to vote in prison or on probation, he said there’s room for a discussion on how sentencing and probation guidelines are set in the state of Minnesota, which typically favors longer probation periods over long prison sentences.
“That’s one reason why we haven’t warmed up to the idea of felons voting, because of how Minnesota has it set up,” said Gazelka, who noted a less punitive approach to drug offense sentencing and probation may be in order.
• Lueck affirmed his views were in line with the law as it’s currently written. “We take away their freedom, we take away a level of communication, even once they’re released on parole,” Lueck said. “Once they’ve completed their sentence, that’s when we should restore felons the right to vote.
“I am open to, maybe, the idea of lowering the probation period so that they can vote a little earlier, but not during the probation period.”
• Poston said he wouldn’t be in favor of felons being allowed to vote until the end of their sentence—whether that’s incarceration, probation or parole—although he noted he could show some leniency depending on the original crime in question.
“I’d probably waver if we could dig down into what the felonies are,” Poston said. “The lesser violations (such as some drug-related offenses, not violent crimes), maybe they should be allowed to vote once they’re out of incarceration.”
On the other hand, for heinous crimes, particularily murder, Poston noted he may be in favor of barring voting rights for convicted criminals thorughout their remaining life.
• Ruud shot the prospect of felons voting during probation, or from prison for that matter, down in no uncertain terms. “It’s a non-starter in the Senate. We would never allow it to happen. I think it’s a ridiculous argument,” said Ruud, who noted she’d be willing to take another look at how sentencing is treated in the state of Minnesota. “I would never vote for it.”
• Heintzeman pointed to the difficult position granting felons full voter rights may place elected officials in areas with a high prison population. “There’s no question that once a felon fulfills their sentencing requirements—prison, probation, and otherwise—their rights should be restored. Those working to allow voting in prisons may be well meaning, but I have serious concerns with this sort of proposal,” Heintzeman wrote. “I also think that it creates quite an unusual scenario for a sheriff in a district with a large prison population.”