Helping More Minnesotans Show Up: #FromTheBlockToTheBallot
By Zeke Caligiuri with contributions from LaLinda Xiong and Antonio Williams
Minnesota shows up to the polls. Often we are near the top of the country in voter turnout. However, conspicuously absent from last fall’s election were the votes of an estimated 50,000 (Uggen et al., 2022) Minnesotans who remain unable to vote because of a felony conviction, the vast majority (71%) of whom are out of prison serving parole or probation. Felony Disenfranchisement has become something we have been conditioned to believe is natural and makes sense in our society. It is hard for some people to separate the word “felony” from the idea of disenfranchisement. The disqualification of so many Minnesotans from participation in our democracy has left communities without the most basic inclusion in our democracy.
In the Fall of 2022, MNJRC, in partnership with Wanton Injustice Legal Detail (WILD) and T.O.N.E. U.P. coordinated a constituency of formerly-incarcerated and justice-impacted individuals alongside volunteers from the legal community to organize a civic engagement campaign to empower felony-convicted people whose voting rights have been restored. “From the Block to the Ballot” was a non-partisan initiative meant to engage thousands of voters who had been re-enfranchised, many of whom didn’t even realize they had become eligible to vote after their felony supervision expired. Through phone and text banking, the purpose was not to support any one particular candidate or issue, but rather, to empower as many people as possible to take part in our democracy.
The From the Block to the Ballot project seeks to serve multiple functions: to help people impacted by the criminal legal system engage and facilitate re-enfranchised voters who might not otherwise know they were eligible to vote, as well as to record and evaluate the process and study different messages and modalities of reaching voters as research to inform future voter engagement campaigns.
Currently in Minnesota, people convicted of a felony are only able to vote when the term of their supervision ends. The sentencing guidelines in Minnesota are structured so that some felony supervision may only last several months, while many may remain disenfranchised for the rest of their lives. This makes pinpointing and engaging with people coming off community supervision much harder, but still very necessary in order to make sure that people who are eligible to vote have access to the right information.
Justice-impacted organizer Antonio Williams was instrumental in the facilitation of this campaign. Antonio is the founder of TONE UP, Teaching Ourselves New Examples to Uplift People, an organization committed to offering resources and coaching to people returning home from incarceration. Antonio will tell you he got his start as an organizer while he was still incarcerated, “challenging the career abuse that goes on in that institution of mass incarceration.”
Antonio and his team led volunteer training, phone and text banks and provided civic education around the historical context of voter engagement for those most impacted by the criminal legal system. What is not widely known is that in the state of Minnesota, there are numerous justice-impacted human beings doing remarkable work to promote civic engagement, and many of these prominent figures do this critical work while also still managing their own parole or probation, a condition that prevents people like Antonio from being able to vote.
For Antonio it means much more: “I believe any program, project or training or anything that involves justice-impacted people should always include justice-impacted people. Anytime we're reaching out to my people, as I call all formerly incarcerated individuals, my people, I want to be involved. I want to bring it (this political education) back to my community and let them know why it's important for them to be involved and to want to be educated around it as well."
The hopes for this project were to build a coalition of justice-impacted individuals to come together again for future elections while also gathering the data necessary to allow campaigns like this to flourish in the future. The initiative was also meant to make space for people who have been marginalized from voting to still be able to make viable contributions to the processes of our society even in situations where they are unable to vote.
The initiative succeeded in that it provided thousands of Minnesota voters information regarding their right to vote and other ways to stay engaged. There is also now a constituency of formerly incarcerated people engaged, civically educated, and able to organize around issues that most compel them. In addition, research staff at the MNJRC are in the process of analyzing the data gathered during the process, to inform future campaigns. Please watch for the MNJRC's full report on this project and to support our efforts this year to continue this work.
Currently HF28 and SF26, bills in the state House and Senate, are being heard during the 2023 legislative session that would restore voting rights for Minnesotans upon release from incarceration. These bills share similar language to earlier bi-partisan efforts in the legislature to restore voting rights for people living in the community. If you would like to know more about HF28 and SF26, visit Rep. Cedrick Frazier and Sen. Bobby Jo Champion's websites to follow their bills. A special thank you to both legislators for leading on this important issue.
Thank you to everyone who helped us execute the From the Block To the Ballot campaign. This work is not just about restoring voting rights and data driven benefits of such a strategy, but it is about the recognition of peoples humanity and the right to choose who governs our systems of justice.