Legislation aims to restore felons’ right to vote

| February 26, 2014 | 0 Comments

Minnesota Catholic Conference among its supporters

Rob Stewart, a doctoral graduate student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, supports legislation that would grant felons like him the right to vote as long as they’re not incarcerated. Dianne Towalski/The Catholic Spirit

Rob Stewart, a doctoral graduate student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, supports legislation that would grant felons like him the right to vote as long as they’re not incarcerated. Dianne Towalski/The Catholic Spirit

The day Rob Stewart decided to get his life back on track is the day he wound up in jail after police found his girlfriend’s drugs in their shared apartment.

Stewart said at other times in his life, the drugs would have been his, but not then. That’s why he pleaded not guilty to a felony charge of first-degree possession with intent to sell. The jury didn’t side in his favor, though; he was convicted and sentenced to eight years and three months in prison at the St. Cloud Correctional Facility.

That was seven years ago. Through an early release program, Stewart got out of prison in 2009 and will serve the remainder of his sentence on parole until October 2015. At age 33, he is studying at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus as a graduate research fellow with the National Science Foundation.

Ultimately, he wants to teach and do research at the college level. He’s on track to earn a doctorate degree in sociology in 2017, just two years after his civil rights are restored — among them, his right to vote.

Under Minnesota law, people convicted of a felony — any crime punishable by a year or more of incarceration — cannot vote while on probation, in prison or out on parole. Stewart, who graduated summa cum laude in law criminality and deviance, said for him and others, not being able to vote plays into psychological issues of feeling disconnected from the communities they’re trying to succeed in.

“It’s not necessarily the actual ‘this is who I want to vote for,’” Stewart said. “To me, it’s more about being a member of the community, your neighborhood and your city. It’s about who’s on city council, like in Minneapolis, or in Owatonna where I’m from. Because in most cities like that, they make all the decisions, so it’s important to have a say in that.”

While in prison, Stewart got a job in the transitions department helping inmates who were about to be released write resumes, complete financial aid forms for school and locate resources and social services in the communities where they would reside. He also tutored fellow inmates and took some college courses. He attributes his success to reconnecting with family, “good people in the community,” his church in Owatonna and friends from younger years.

He enrolled in graduate school as “a way to give back to the community, to help people that were no different from me, but that maybe didn’t have the same advantages that I had,” he said.

Stewart didn’t realize he was ineligible to vote until he went to the polls in a 2010 precinct caucus and heard the rules.

“It’s embarrassing, it’s frustrating, but I think most of all, it’s just kind of depressing,” Stewart said. “It’s a reinforcement of the fact that the sins of your past are going to continue to haunt you. I’m out here and I have a job, I pay taxes, I do all these things, but I don’t have any say in anything.”

Potential change

Legislation in Minnesota’s 2014 session that started Feb. 25 aims to change part of that law.

State Sen. Bobby Joe Champion of Minneapolis met many like Stewart on the campaign trail in 2008. He is the chief author of SF 107 — legislation that, if passed, would restore felons’ right to vote as long as they aren’t in prison. As is, Champion said, people have to sit on the sidelines while others have discussions and make decisions.

“I really do think that a person’s right to vote should not be connected to them being punished,” Champion said. “When people take ownership in something, they’re more invested in it. When they can use their voice as a form of their power, they become more influential and relevant. They see themselves as part of the solution, not the problem.”

Champion challenges the notion that offenders will offend again — the reason he hears most about why people oppose restoring felons’ voting rights.

“I think the more people see that so many of Minnesotans from cross sections of communities are denied the right to vote, people will realize the issue and stop to think about what this really means,” he said. “It requires people to think differently about felons — who they are.”

Stewart wants to change the misconception that most felons commit violent crimes like murder and rape; forgery and fraud can constitute felonies, too.

“The people that we’re talking about are not some other group — they’re people that are among us, that live next door, they’re the people we work with, they’re our kids’ parents,” Stewart said. “Instead of looking for the differences, I encourage people to look for the similarities.”

Having a voice

The Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the state’s Catholic bishops, is among local organizations that support felon disenfranchisement reform through a partnership of the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, which will host its sixth annual Second Chance Day on the Hill at 2 p.m. March 12 at the Capitol Rotunda.

“From our perspective, it’s a justice issue, and in a spirit similar to those other issues like Ban the Box, where we really take seriously the desire to restore and rehabilitate people and bring them back into society,” said MCC executive director Jason Adkins. “I think this is an important place for the Church to be speaking.”

The Second Chance Day on the Hill event aims to put people and stories in front of legislators because, according to Mark Haase, vice president for the Council on Crime and Justice in Minneapolis and Second Chance Coalition member, typically, policies get made without understanding how they impact people.

“The law’s original intent was to disenfranchise the most serious offenders,” Haase said. “We’ve just really broadened the impact.”

According to a 2012 University of Minnesota study, in 2011, 63,000 Minnesotans were unable to vote because of a felony conviction. Of those, 75 percent were living again in local communities.

Champion would like his fellow legislators and Minnesota voters to remember the Prodigal Son parable from Luke 15:11-32.

“When our people get lost and broken, but come to themselves and seek forgiveness, we, as a society, need to welcome them back,” he said. “If we believe that people should be given a second chance, then we have to create an environment that would welcome them.”

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