MSR interviews political powerbroker and Minnesota Senate President Bobby Joe Champion
It’s been a month since Governor Tim Walz signed a bill to reinstate voting rights to over 50,000 of those who were previously incarcerated, making Minnesota the 22nd state in the country to automatically restore voting rights once an individual is released from prison.
The effort to restore voting rights to ex-offenders has been several years in the making and has risen to the state’s highest court. The Minnesota Supreme Court has been considering the constitutionality of the matter since 2019, when the American Civil Liberties Union in Minnesota argued that the state’s constitution guaranteed some voting rights, and the ban disproportionately affected people of color.
Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court came to the ruling that the law barring felons from the polls until their sentences were complete was constitutional. The court’s ruling signaled that the issue was now imperative for lawmakers to pass legislation in order for tens of thousands of Minnesotans to have their voting rights restored.
That responsibility fell to Senate President Bobby Joe Champion and his colleagues in the Minnesota State House and Senate, who were willing to take it on. He and other state legislators were able to move their respective bills between the House and Senate days later, culminating in the moment when Gov. Walz signed the bill on March 3. The law will go into effect on July 1, when 55,000 Minnesotans will be able to participate, without restrictions, in the most fundamental democratic process—voting.
Senator Champion sees this change as a critical step in the effort to reduce recidivism rates in the state and allow a second chance for individuals to participate in democracy.
“They say if you want people to be successful and reintegrate into society, and you want to decrease recidivism, and you want to make sure that individuals are not going to re-offend, you make sure that they can be a part of the fabric of our democracy,” he said. “They [those who have been incarcerated] said they often felt dehumanized, less than, especially with when it would come to voting. When that day would come and others would have a red sticker that says, ‘I Voted,’ they say their voice was silenced.”
Although this issue is something that impacts people of color, Champion underlines the fact that this is an issue that reaches across a large swath of communities. According to the data Champion and his colleagues worked with, 36 percent of the individuals who are set to have their voting rights restored are from Hennepin and Ramsey counties and 64 percent are from greater Minnesota.
Senator Champion recently spoke to the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder about the work that went into passing this bill and what he sees next on his legislative agenda regarding criminal justice reform.
MSR: What’s the background for this law?
Champion: The file has been affectionately known as “Restore the Vote” ever since I’ve been in the legislature, and as long as I’ve been working on this initiative. Before me, it was Attorney General Ellison. He was working on this along with Linda Higgins, who was my predecessor in the Senate.
We understand that the bedrock of any democracy is to be able to hear an individual’s voice. Your vote is your voice. So there in this statute, Minnesota statute, Section 609.165 that says, if you’re in for a felony probation or paper, until you complete those sentences and you’re ‘off paper’ which is what we call it this industry—you can’t vote. It could have been a person who has a chemical dependency problem that ends up being charged for possession of drugs. The bottom line is that the person can’t vote.
MSR: Why was it important for you to make this change and restore voting rights?
Champion: Because I believe in second chances, I believe a person should not be perpetually punished for making a bad decision. If they’re out amongst us, then there was some decision made that they were safe and that was okay, and that they should be with us.
We thought it was important for people to have the right to vote because there are also people working and if you’re working, you’re doing what—you’re paying taxes. You are paying taxes without being able to speak to who’s representing you. Whether that’s on the school board, city council, county commissioner, state representative, federal government, you know—or even the park board—with no say. That’s taxation without representation.
MSR: Is there a waiting period or any stipulations to reintroducing voting rights to those who have served their time?
Champion: There’s no waiting period. You get out and you’re not incarcerated, you are allowed to vote because we want you to get reintegrated into society expeditiously. So yes, a person would be able to get out and vote right away. Now, others tried to argue for a waiting period and to me that just added more confusion. We need to have a clear line, so no one will make a mistake. We don’t want there to be a mistake. We don’t want anything that could risk their freedom, or run the risk of them being charged with a new crime, because they may have voted too early.
MSR: Was there any pushback from other legislatures at the thought of restoring voting rights for past offenders?
Champion: As I was pushing for this, you heard things like, ‘Hey, they have to pay their debt to society. And if this is a consequence of their behavior that they are not allowed to vote, then they should not be allowed to vote.’ Then I heard people say there should be a waiting period.
If they come out, we should make them prove that they’ve changed and they’re different before they’re given the right to vote. Then there are those who said, ‘Hey, I’m okay with everybody else voting. But if you’re a rapist or a murderer or something like that, then you shouldn’t be allowed to vote.’
Well, here’s the thing, that becomes confusing too. Because now you gotta start timing when somebody can or cannot vote. And if we really wanna make sure that people are not offending and, and we want to bring down or decrease recidivism, there can’t be exceptions.
MSR: Are there other things you’re looking at to expand the rights of those who were formerly incarcerated to reduce recidivism?
Champion: I’ve done some stuff on the juvenile side of the equation. That’s important because some of the things that we’re seeing involve our young people. How do we make sure that there’s prevention and intervention? What about the services that they need so we can bring them back into law-abiding behavior or prevent them from getting into unlawful behavior?
That also means allowing them to dream and then help them with employment, but also education and making sure that they can get their mental-health issues addressed, or address poverty issues. Sometimes when you’re a young person or a person who is evolving, you sometimes get involved in things you shouldn’t. Now you want a career—whether it’s in PCA (personal care assistance) or child childcare or something that requires a license, and now you apply and now you are disqualified because of your record. I’m dealing with DHS (Department of Human Services) to say that you can’t use their background against them—if number one, their record got it expunged, or number two, it was resolved favorably for them.
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