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Effort to restore voting rights to felons faces early obstacle at Minnesota Capitol

Minnesota House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, tells attendees at a rally to restore voting rights to felons who have completed their prison terms that their proposal would pass in the House. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service1 / 2
Mark Rios shares his experience at a rally to restore rights to felons after they complete their prison sentences Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, at the Capitol. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL — Dozens of Minnesotans aiming to restore the right to vote for Minnesota felons who complete their prison time rallied at the Capitol Thursday, Feb. 7.

And for the first time in more than a decade, it looked like they'd have a good shot.

The secretary of state, deputy commissioner of corrections and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Senate Republicans, said they were ready to pass the bills. First Lady Gwen Walz took the stage in her first official action to provide support for the bill. In no uncertain terms, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said he was ready to get it done.

"The Minnesota House of Representatives is going to pass 'Restore the Vote' this year,” Winkler said to applause from those gathered in the Capitol rotunda.

Under current law, those convicted of a felony lose the right to vote until after they've completed their sentence including prison time, probation, parole or conditional release. House File 40 and companion bill Senate File 856 would allow those convicted of a felony to vote after they were released from prison.

But the proposal faces a roadblock in the Senate, where the chair of a key committee said the bill wouldn't be a top priority for members.

"I'm not planning on giving that bill a hearing this year," said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove. Limmer chairs the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee. "If you're going to do the crime, you have to be willing to do the time."

Limmer said he hadn't received letters from concerned citizens on the issue.

At the Capitol on Thursday, people convicted of felonies shared their stories. Mark Rios was convicted of two felonies in 2015 after he was alleged to have overbilled for hours he reported he worked. He said he won't be able to vote until he completes his probation.

"I'm silenced for the next 10 years," Rios said. "I'm invisible to my community, but I am here today to make sure that I'm heard."

The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, said he'd attended similar rallies in years past and talked about his incarceration and its impacts on his life.

“I’m someone who had a second chance,” Dehn said.

While the proposal might face a tough road, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said lawmakers should keep up conversations about restoring felons' voting rights. He suggested shortening some probation periods in the state sentencing guidelines, which could restore felons' voting rights sooner.

“It’s a bigger discussion than just voting during the probation period,” Gazelka said.

Limmer said he'd be willing to review some probation sentencing guidelines this year.