New state law means those with felony records can vote as soon as they’re released from prison
They were once behind bars.
Now, this election day, a new beginning.
“For the first time, I had a voice to put the power,” said one man leaving the polls.
“It made me feel like I was being heard,” said another. “Made me feel like I can express myself.”
“It felt amazing,” added Antonio Williams. “I felt like I was making an important decision, and it was the start of a long line of important decisions I’ll be making.”
Williams, from St. Paul, was released from prison in 2020 after serving a 14-year sentence on an aiding and abetting homicide charge.
He says voting on Tuesday felt like the future.
“It was like, this is my democracy,” Williams declares. “This is mine. I care about this. This means something to me. I feel included.”
He’s not alone.
In March, Governor Tim Walz signed the Felon Voting Rights bill into law.
That means that 55,000 formerly incarcerated Minnesotans now have the right to vote as soon as they’re released — no more waiting until after they finish probation or parole.
Williams says before now, he would have had to wait to vote until June 2025, when he gets off parole.
“We’re excited about the word getting out,” notes Shane Price, the co-founder of The Power of People Leadership Institute. “But we recognize we have to help the word spread.”
The Minneapolis nonprofit has been holding voter education sessions for formerly incarcerated people.
Price says 78 people attended the group’s last voter workshop.
“They have the opportunity not just to work and pay taxes, but to have representation as well,” he notes. “I feel like the state has gotten on the right side of history in their legislative thinking, and I’m grateful for that.”
Among those at the polls Tuesday is Tierre Caldwell, who served an eight-year prison sentence on a first-degree assault charge.
He also had to serve three years on parole.
During that time, Caldwell says he was not allowed to vote.
But by 2020, he was able to go to the polls.
“It’s kind of like having the tape ripped off my mouth and actually being able to have a voice,” he declares. “For so long, I’ve felt like kind of re-entering society. I had this tape over my face, over my voice, basically silencing me.”
Now, Caldwell works with The Power of People Leadership Institute, mentoring other formerly incarcerated people.
“A lot of it is empowerment, a lot of it is education,” he explains. “A lot of people don’t really know where they can vote, why they should vote, who they should vote for, what those actual politicians stand for.”
Price says there’s a lot of work ahead in getting the word out to those with a felony record.
“I’m excited for what the State of Minnesota has done to restore those rights,” he exclaims. “Our hope is that vision and that visual gets transmitted to other nooks and crannies in the state of Minnesota where the 55,000 exist, and that they can see the possibilities there.
Williams, too, is paying it forward.
He’s been using his nonprofit ‘Tone-Up’ — short for ‘Teaching Ourselves New Examples to Uplift People” — to help other formerly incarcerated people navigate the voting process.
On Election night, he and his colleagues set up a phone bank to remind those with a felony record to vote — even giving them rides to the polls.
“We’ve made calls, we’ve knocked on doors in the past month and some change,” he says. “We felt the best way to spend Election Day was reaching out to these folks. As I’m sitting here on this moment on Election Night, it feels real. It does feel like this is mine. This is ours.”