From The Block To The Ballot
Over the past two decades, Red and Blue States have enacted reforms to lower the barriers to vote for people with criminal records. For example, Alabama reduced the kinds of crimes that could disqualify someone from voting, Maryland gave people on probation and parole the right to vote, and Virginia restored voting rights to nearly 175,000 people with criminal records.
The disenfranchisement of people with criminal records achieves no legitimate purpose. Rather, it is a legacy of the Jim Crow era and has disproportionately affected racial minorities. Millions of our fellow citizens who live and work in our neighborhoods cannot fully participate in our democracy because of a past conviction.
Even here in Minnesota, people do not get the right to vote when they exit prison. Instead, they are treated as second-class citizens while they complete their supervision. This means people who are living in the community, working and paying taxes, have no ability to elect the people who spend their tax dollars. Parents can't vote for School Board or Park Board where their kids go to learn or play. These are people who have stood in front of a judge and County Attorney but can't vote for judges and prosecutors.
What's worse is that even people who are eligible to vote but have a criminal history choose to stay home on Election Day. Lack of information about eligibility and fears of voting illegally contribute to a number of Minnesotans to believe their voices don't matter. Being systemically silenced limits their full reentry into the community, which may lead them to more criminal behavior. For this reason, even something as simple as encouraging people to vote and engage civically can be a meaningful factor in building safe communities.
While the movement to restore the vote is vital, it is equally important to get people with criminal records to the polls once they are enfranchised. The full participation of all Minnesotans in the democratic process builds a stronger society, advances civil rights, lowers recidivism, and empowers marginalized communities.
This fall, Minnesotans will head to the polls to elect the Governor who appoints commissioners who lead the Department of Corrections and Public Safety. Voters will elect the Attorney General who provides legal representation to every state agency and services to nonprofits and individuals. Across the state, county prosecutors and sheriffs will be elected to respond to the nationwide increase in violent crime. In many ways, these seats represent the leadership of our criminal legal system, and the people they have impacted directly deserve a say in who gets to govern from those seats.
Together with our partners at Wanton Injustice Legal Detail (WILD), the Minnesota Justice Research Center (MNJRC) will undertake a 4-week volunteer program (October-November) focused on encouraging eligible voters with criminal histories to vote by November 8th, 2022. Join us for a 2.5 hour shift and help us reach Minnesotans who may believe their voices don't matter.
This drive is built on the foundations of empowerment and self-help. It is directed primarily by justice-impacted persons to encourage other justice-impacted people to exercise their civic power. All are welcome and all are needed. Together, we can expand the definition of justice to include restoration and move away from a singular focus on punishment. This is how we build safe communities.