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A new Minnesota law restores voting rights to thousands of felony offenders

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A recent change in Minnesota voting laws allow formerly incarcerated people to register to vote as soon as they're released. But as Minnesota Public Radio's Brian Bakst reports, getting them to the polls is a whole other matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLATTERING)

UNIDENTIFIED CORRECTIONAL OFFICER: Walk down through.

BRIAN BAKST, BYLINE: At one of Minnesota's highest-security correctional facilities, layers of prison doors shut behind Secretary of State Steve Simon as he heads inside to meet with a group of 15 inmates. All are due to walk out of the Stillwater prison by the end of October and settle into new homes, jobs and routines. Simon is there to urge them to add one more thing to the reentry plan - registering to vote.

STEVE SIMON: Can I ask a quick question, if you care to say? How many of you have voted in the past?

BAKST: Only a few hands go up.

SIMON: Man, you got political power the minute you step out of here, and it's a gift. And use your power. Use your voice. That's my advice. I know you'll have a ton of other things to think about, but I just hope this is on the list.

BAKST: They'll get a voter registration form in their prison discharge packet, and they won't have to wait even a day to fill it out thanks to a new state law that restores voting rights immediately rather than upon completion of supervised release or probation. That's estimated to affect 55,000 people. Robert Clark says he'll be signing up to vote when he leaves Stillwater in less than two months.

ROBERT CLARK: I wanted people to understand that we have a voice. And it's not just because we've been to prison that we're bad people and they're going to count us out.

BAKST: Derek Burgess, also on the cusp of freedom, tells Simon he's motivated to vote as well. But he jokes...

DEREK BURGESS: This is going to get me in trouble. I'm a Trump supporter. My significant other is a Democrat, you feel me? And now I can vote when I get out in the next couple weeks.

SIMON: Yes.

BURGESS: This is crazy, man.

(LAUGHTER)

BURGESS: We all about to get in trouble, man.

BAKST: Minnesota is one of several states this year to have expanded or tightened rules around voting eligibility for the formerly incarcerated. Sarah Walker is a Democratic consultant who has worked on reenfranchisement efforts around the country. She says voter participation among this group remains low.

SARAH WALKER: So this group has historically not been targeted by voter engagement. So I think that's one barrier. Like, you have to make a conscious effort to actually engage this population.

BAKST: Walker says standards that differ by state feed confusion about eligibility. That can make people hesitant to vote out of fear they'll get tangled up again in the justice system. She adds that who delivers the message is also key.

WALKER: If you have a shared life experience and lived experience, you're going to have more credibility with someone who can relate to you.

BAKST: Antonio Williams led a canvass this summer in Saint Paul.

ANTONIO WILLIAMS: This is going to be our turf, so we're going to split up and take both sides of the street.

BAKST: He served 13 years on a murder accessory conviction. He's been out of prison for a few years but without the new law, wouldn't have regained voting eligibility until 2025. Williams leans into the open window of a parked car and strikes up a conversation with a man inside.

WILLIAMS: Don't matter if you're on parole, probation, none of that. If you are not incarcerated, your voting rights are automatically restored. Brother, you can vote. You can vote. I'm still on parole and probation right now. So I'm going to ask you, can I register you to vote?

BAKST: Williams is anticipating a rush of feelings when he goes to the polls this year for municipal elections.

WILLIAMS: And now here I am able to vote. It's real, but it's still, like, one of those things until I cast my ballot - you know, then it's going to be like, oh, wow, I just did it, you know?

BAKST: There are other signs of growing acceptance of the formerly incarcerated in political life.

MIRANDA PACHECO: Hi, everyone.

(CHEERING)

BAKST: Miranda Pacheco celebrated with supporters after advancing this month through a primary election for city council in Duluth, the fifth-largest city in Minnesota.

PACHECO: Up until very recently, I didn't have the right to vote. A few months ago, Duluth hadn't heard of me.

BAKST: Pacheco spent her childhood dealing with abuse, teen pregnancy and housing instability. Her 20s and 30s were marked by bouts with addiction and transgressions that landed her a felony record. Now 43, Pacheco moved off probation in April and is well beyond her troubled past while keeping that part of her life front and center even in a campaign.

PACHECO: It's just me. Like, I can't lie. I can't hide it. That is my strength. I turned my life around, right?

BAKST: And Pacheco, who cast her first-ever vote for herself, knows there's extra significance in her story.

PACHECO: I want to help empower people. And so if people could see, you know, like, hey, look, Miranda's a felon.

BAKST: Pacheco choked back emotion as she thanked the crowd.

PACHECO: You voted for the person who fights hard even when hope seems impossible.

BAKST: She understands that November could bring more elation or a letdown. But Pacheco says, either way, she feels like she's been invited back into society and been given power through her vote.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Bakst in Duluth. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brian Bakst
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