“It’s long overdue we’ve corrected this injustice.” Minnesotans celebrate new law restoring voting rights to felons

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At the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis Saturday, there was a celebration of a new state law.

A law that restores voting rights to Minnesotans who’ve served time in jail or prison.

“It’s long overdue that we’ve corrected this injustice,” declared Antonio Williams, of St. Paul. “I think it’s long overdue. We talk about our democracy, we talk about inclusion, but we haven’t truly lived it as a government.”

A ‘Restore the Vote’ gathering was hosted by The Power of People Leadership Institute.

The nonprofit has been doing outreach work at prisons for nearly two decades.  

“You know what? Once you’ve done your time, you’re still a citizen,” said Verna Cornelia Price, the institute’s co-founder. “You did a crime, but you’re still a citizen, so you should have your voice back.”

“A seat at the table, an opportunity to glean what people have been talking about, but they didn’t have a party in,” her co-founder Shane Price added.

On March 3, Governor Tim Walz signed the Felon Voting Rights Bill.

It means people convicted of felonies will now be able to vote immediately after they’re released — no more waiting until after they finish probation or parole.

Among those at the event was Adoniyah Israel, who served a 24-year sentence for second-degree unintentional murder.

He’s been out of prison since 2018, and is still on parole.

But now, he’s eligible to vote.

“It feels fantastic,” Israel said. “I’m working, I’m a taxpayer, I’m a business owner. So I’m doing all the things a normal citizen would do out there. But I’ve been doing it now for years without representation. But now I have my representation.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Minnesota now joins 21 other states in automatically restoring voting rights after release from prison.

Before the law’s passage, DFL lawmakers fought off Republican amendments that would have restricted voting rights for felons convicted of murder or manslaughter.

“The people that commit the crime of murder or manslaughter, they have permanently taken away their victim’s right to vote,” Senator Andrew Mathews of Princeton said during debate on the bill.

But on Saturday, Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan said giving ex-felons the right to vote upon release gives them a stake in their communities.

“Our goal is to make sure that people can reintegrate into the community,” she said. “We know that people who are formerly incarcerated, that they feel more connected to community and more invested in community — they do better.”

Williams says he served 14 years in prison, after he was convicted on an aiding and abetting homicide charge.

Free for two-and-a-half years now, he’s been counseling with others who’ve been incarcerated.

Williams says he hopes to educate other ex-felons about being an informed voter — knowing the candidates and the issues.

“We need to make sure all of our citizens are able to be a part of that, and be included in that,” he noted. “I don’t understand and never understood where the correlation between stripping a person of their voting rights has anything to do with public safety.”  

As part of its outreach, the institute is hoping to help formerly incarcerated people to navigate the voting process.

Hamline University Political Science professor David Schultz said that will be essential.

“If in fact, we want to say that you’ve done your time, you served your time, you should be welcomed back, this is one way to do it,” he explained. “Education for individuals once they leave prison or jail to let them know that in fact you are eligible to vote. Here’s how you go about doing it, how you go about registering. On that score, still a lot of work to be done.”

But those attending this event say they are ready.

Willie Lloyd, Junior, who was released from prison 13 years ago after serving time on a murder conviction, says he’s looking forward to casting his ballot.

“For 13 years, I’ve been paying taxes, without having a voice on how those taxes are spent,” he exclaimed. “Our democracy is only as strong as those of us who have a say.”

You can find out more about The Power of People Leadership Institute here.