“Forty-seven thousand Minnesotans don’t have the right to vote. They’re tax-paying citizens who have served their time, and they’re out. They’re in our community, they own property. They run businesses. They’re part of our community. And they’re denied the right to vote on Election Day, but they have to pay taxes.”
So says Wintana Melekin of the North Minneapolis advocacy group Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC). Who are these disenfranchised Minnesotans of whom she speaks?
Those Minnesotans are men and women who have a felony conviction and have consequently lost their right to vote. NOC is part of a coordinated effort called Restore the Vote whose aim, as their name states, is to restore voting rights to Minnesotans with felonies on their records. The other member groups are too numerous to list in this space; a list is available at www.restorethevotemn.org.
“This is an issue that’s been of major concern to us for years,” said Melekin. “We knock on doors every year on the North Side. About every fifth door I’d knock on, I’d hear, ‘I’m on probation. I can’t vote.’
“I had to ask, why is this? Why does it seem like so many people are being denied access to the polls? It’s because of a state law, and we’ve been working to repeal that law, to get anyone, as soon as they’re released, to get back the right to vote.”
Melekin cited statistics that show that of the 47,000 Minnesotans who have lost the right to vote, 9,000 of them are African American. She added, “The interesting thing is that 60 percent of those 47,000 live outside of the Twin Cities. We’re talking about more than people of color who are actually on probation.”
The view of NOC and the Restore the Vote coalition is that these offenders have paid their penalty, and it is unfair to continue to penalize them by subsequently denying them the right to vote. “Minnesota really prides itself on being a progressive state. We actually try to keep people out of prison. We put people on probation, or find other avenues [for felons to pay their debt to society] for nonviolent offenses like using drugs, credit card theft, etc.,” said Melekin.
“What we need to be asking is how to rehabilitate people instead of casting them out with a ‘scarlet letter’ and keeping them away from opportunities. How do we use redemption to forgive them and support them [having a place in society]? Instead, the first thing we’re telling them is, ‘You don’t get the right to vote.’
“Everyone is told from the time they are children that voting is important, voting matters, and always vote. And then we tell someone, ‘Oh, you don’t get to vote.’”
Further, Melekin adds that many or most of these former offenders are now paying taxes, running businesses, and making positive contributions in their communities, and that we should “welcome them back into society and allow them a voice” on what kind of society we should have by allowing them to vote.
Citing the example of Navell Gordon, who has been with NOC for about two years, Melekin said Gordon “shows up every day, canvasses, and knocks on thousands of doors to get people to vote — and he can’t vote. He’s never been able to vote. He committed a felony as a minor and he’s just never had access to the polls, never got the chance to vote. And he’s in this community, investing deeply.
“He pays taxes and contributes to his community, but he doesn’t have access to the polls.”
According to Melekin, about 13 states currently allow former felons to vote, adding that “our neighbor, North Dakota, has a more progressive policy than we do” and restores voting rights to felons after their sentences are completed.
Although the building housing NOC was recently destroyed in a fire, NOC and the Restore the Vote coalition intend to continue their efforts, including door knocking and what they call a “Day of Action” at the Capitol on April 29. Information about the event is available at http://tinyurl.com/lvy2feq.
“We believe in redemption,” Melekin concluded. “We believe in rehabilitation.”
Isaac Peterson welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.