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Lawmaker blocked provision telling felons they can’t vote

By Tim Pugmire

MPR News 91.3

ST. PAUL — The defeat last fall of a proposed constitutional amendment that would have required voters to show photo identification at the polls did not end efforts in the Minnesota Legislature to keep felons from voting.

In the closing days of the legislative session, lawmakers jettisoned a requirement that the state provide written notification to felons about their voting eligibility. Lawmakers deleted the provision, originally included in the omnibus elections bill, during the final conference committee negotiations.

Beth Fraser, director of governmental affairs for the office of the Secretary of State, called the move disappointing.

"We believe that there were steps that could have been taken that would have helped with that situation, to have better ensured that those who’ve been convicted of felonies were notified that they should not vote, and let them know that the state knows they shouldn’t vote, which you’d think would really stop them in their tracks from going forward," Fraser said.

Felons on probation or parole are not supposed to vote until their civil rights are restored. But some still vote illegally, often because they are unaware of the rules or their own status.

A 2012 report from the Task Force on Election Integrity highlighted the lack of a state database or consistent notification procedures to accurately identify when a felon has regained the eligibility to vote.

Fraser said the new election law signed last month requires the commissioner of corrections to now share more information about felons.

"It will provide more data to the Secretary of State’s office, so that we can have a better dataset to use to try to prevent people from voting by flagging anyone who is registered who’s currently serving a felony sentence, and if they do go ahead and vote, to catch them and prosecute them," she said.

State legislators decided to strip the requirement to provide written notification to felons about their voting eligibility in response to objections from State Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson.

Newman, the Senate author of last year’s voter ID constitutional amendment, argued judges and probation officers could notify felons more easily and at less cost than the secretary of state. He also said he didn’t think it was appropriate to give special treatment to felons.

"We do not provide special notice for students, for instance, who come in from out of state," Newman said. "We don’t provide special notice to, say, students who live in one community, move to another community for purposes of going to school. We don’t provide special notice to someone who turns 18 and is now eligible to vote."

The omnibus elections bill makes changes in the state’s handling of absentee voting, automatic recounts and unexpected ballot vacancies. State Rep. Steve Simon, chair of the House Elections Committee, said the objections from Newman and other Senate Republicans to the felon notification provision threatened the success of the entire bill.

Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, had insisted on broad bipartisan support to get his signature.

Simon, DFL-Hopkins, opposed the voter ID constitutional amendment. He said the data sharing on felons is important, but he believes a reduction in felons voting is now less likely. He also said Newman’s argument seemed inconsistent with his earlier support for voter ID.

"If we want to minimize, crack down on, eliminate the instances of felons voting when they shouldn’t, then that’s a reason to be vigorous about getting out there and letting folks know what they can and can’t do," Simon said. "Giving them a report. Giving them the proverbial tap on the shoulder to let them know that they either can vote or can’t vote. So it does seem inconsistent to me."

Newman disagreed.

"I don’t think I ever singled out or specified one particular group of voters as the reason for voter ID," he said. "Felons voting is simply one of the problems I believe exists."

Newman said he plans to introduce legislation next year to place the notification requirement within the judicial system. Simon said he plans to revisit the issue too, but with the hope of trying to change the minds of Newman and other Senate Republicans.