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Guest Opinion: The Minnesota Constitution: Felons must complete their sentences before being allowed to vote

Democrats and a few Republican allies are at it again in the Minnesota Legislature. They are determined to thwart the Minnesota Constitution, undermine the judiciary, reward habitual criminal offenders and allow un-rehabilitated criminals to affect the election of the judges, sheriffs and county attorneys who are responsible for their supervision ("Felons' right to vote back at Capitol," Feb. 5).

The goal: Change election law to allow every person who has molested a child, battered a spouse, murdered a police officer or committed any of the 35 other statutorily defined "violent" crimes to vote while serving the parole and probation terms of their sentences.

Forget the abused child, the injured spouse and the dead police officer. Members of this new class of victims — multiple offenders among it — need, according to proponents, to have their voting rights restored prematurely. Then these lawbreakers can exercise their lack of concern for the community by helping shape our civic leadership.

Promoters of this radical proposal are hammering felon voting through the Minnesota House and are likely soon to be conducting deceptive maneuvering (such as attaching voting-related amendments to unrelated, non-election bills) in the Minnesota Senate. The Senate offers the only hope for preventing this erosion of our elections.

Article VII, Section 1 of the Minnesota Constitution has provided more than 160 years of straight talk on this issue. It says that felons may not vote "unless restored to civil rights." Felons on parole or probation have not had their civil rights restored. Before finishing their complete sentences, felons are commonly denied the right to travel freely, restricted from associating with other offenders and required to live under government supervision. The Legislature has neither considered nor sought a legal analysis of this question, perhaps because the conclusion is apparent.

Criminal sentences are imposed to protect law-abiding citizens from those who have shown a willingness to harm others. Felonies are serious crimes that always have victims. Felons are not the victims here. Legislators should be supporting the findings and determinations of judges, not overruling them and substituting an unthinking grant of partial "pardon" to every murderer, rapist, arsonist and armed robber, with no regard to the circumstances of the particular offender.

This legislation would permit (according to backers) approximately 60,000 felons statewide to vote before they have shown they can live in the community and abide by its laws.

According to research conducted by the Pew Center on the States, over 60 percent of felons released from prison in Minnesota are back in prison within three years. This is the highest rate of recidivism in the country, despite the extensive rehabilitation and opportunity programs designed to prevent re-offense. Being released from prison doesn't make a felon law-abiding, and automatically granting the right to vote is no magic bullet that will prevent them from re-offending.

This legislation would allow thousands of felons the right to vote between imprisonments. Our elections must be protected from the participation of those who are interested in subverting the public good. Minnesota already gives felons a "second chance" — once they have completed their sentences. Allowing them to vote before that is really a "second risk" for law-abiding voters.

Supporters of changing the law are focused almost entirely on what they view as being good for the felon, rather than being concerned with the rights of law-abiding citizens. Proponents claim that allowing newly released criminals to vote will help keep them on the straight and narrow. If voting is such a strong motivator for felons, then the current system, which rewards them after they have shown the ability to abide by the law, is the proper policy. Felons can be proud of having earned back their right to vote.

It is harmful public policy to allow a murderer or someone who has threatened a judge or who has attacked a police officer to automatically regain the right to vote for judges, sheriffs, and county attorneys while still under their supervision.

Legislators who are backing felon voting prior to restoration of civil rights should remember that they swore an oath to defend the Minnesota Constitution. We strongly urge them to reconsider this harmful proposal, withdraw their names from the bill, and do their duty to protect our elections.

Andrew E. Cilek is executive director of the Minnesota Voters Alliance. Cindy Pugh is a former Republican member of the Minnesota House.

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