Voters line up in voting booths to cast their ballots at Robious Elementary School in Richmond, Va. on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. The 30-ft. x 12-ft. image in the background was painted by 3rd and 4th graders at the school in preparation for Veterans Day. (Shelby Lum/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
Last year, approximately 4.6 million Americans and nearly 55,000 Minnesotans were unable to vote even though they had already served their prison time — roughly 2% of the country’s voting-age population. But that’s about to change here in Minnesota.
Starting this summer, Minnesotans who have left prison behind will be eligible to register to vote and regain access to the ballot box. The legislation providing for that — championed by the Restore the Vote coalition, state Sen. Bobby Joe Champion and state Rep. Cedric Frazier — will make us one of 25 states that have taken action to re-enfranchise returning citizens. Unfortunately, in many of these states, voter registration rates for those who have had their right to vote restored remain quite low. That’s why, for Minnesota’s efforts to restore the vote to be more successful, we need to pass automatic voter registration.
Automatic voter registration is a proposal currently before the Minnesota Legislature that promises to ease the transition for newly enfranchised voters. Simply put, it would enable all eligible citizens who get or renew a driver’s license to be directly registered to vote by using information and databases from agencies like the Department of Public Safety and the U.S. Postal Service.
Real human beings would still do the filtering and screening necessary to ensure that only eligible voters are registering to vote.
Automatic voter registration would streamline eligibility verification, giving us a better shot of improving on the limited successes we’ve seen elsewhere across the country. In other states, too many legislative campaigns focused on restoring voting rights have taken their foot off the gas after winning approval in their state legislatures. But those victories mean little if voter registration — the essential intermediary step between having the right to vote and casting a ballot — remains low among those voters. Combining restoration of rights with automatic voter registration is key to solving this problem by making registering to vote much easier and more efficient. Minnesota’s legislature has the opportunity to do so by passing the Democracy for the People Act this year.
But make no mistake — automatic registration would do more than facilitate voter registration among individuals who have left prison behind. Younger voters, renters and others who are highly mobile would need to take one fewer step to continue participating in Minnesota’s elections. Community groups committed to keeping Minnesota’s voter turnout among the best in the county could also focus more on educating and mobilizing voters and less on voter registration itself.
Making it easier for those who have served their time to vote also gives us a better chance of reducing recidivism and improving public safety in Minnesota.
One study found that former offenders who vote are half as likely as their non-voting counterparts to reoffend. Another found that in states that permanently bar offenders from voting, recidivism is higher than in states that do not.
These findings reinforce common sense: exercising the right to vote is an act of inclusion in our community and our government. If we want people who are no longer in custody to successfully reintegrate into the community, we should make a place for them — and their voice — in our civic society. Denying them the right to vote does nothing to improve public safety — it only reinforces the sense that they aren’t being given a fair shot at their second chance.
Minnesota can lead the way to a better place. Combining restored voting rights with a secure and streamlined automatic voter registration process will promote election participation by all eligible voters. When all voices are fairly represented through the vote, public officials and agencies can be more responsive to the challenges that all citizens face. And our democracy will be stronger, better serving every Minnesotan.
Steve Simon serves as Minnesota’s secretary of state. Sandy Yancy Jr. is a father, husband, and proud Minnesotan who was formerly incarcerated.