On 1 June, in front of a gaggle of press, Kevin Reese signed his voter registration papers – a possibility that felt remote for the more than 14 years he spent locked up inside of Minnesota correctional facilities.
In prison, Reese thought constantly about what it would mean to leave. He formed a group that met weekly to talk about what it would take “to get out and not only be OK, but to transcend and be able to live our dreams”. The men talked about the responsibilities that awaited outside: children, parole, taxes. In 2013, Reese said, they began to focus on one concern in particular: voting, and restoring the right to vote to other formerly incarcerated Minnesotans.
Reese, now the executive director of the Minnesota-based organizing group Until We Are All Free, is one of more than 55,000 people who gained the right to vote after Minnesota’s governor, Tim Walz, signed a bill restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions. The Restore the Vote law, which passed in March, guaranteed that anyone not in prison can vote.
The Minnesota legislature passed the bill during a historic session that saw a wide range of progressive bills signed into law – including a collection of laws to protect workers, abortion rights legislation, and a raft of voting rights and democracy reform legislation.
Minnesota was one of a few states to secure a Democratic trifecta in 2022 – Democrats in Michigan, Maryland and Massachusetts managed the same – but it is the only statehouse to pass such wide ranging reforms in one legislative session. The liberal trifecta is a first since 2013, when Democrats controlled the statehouse for just one session.
Flipping the senate turned the state blue, and despite losing a handful of house seats held by moderates to Republicans, Minnesota Democrats, known as the Democratic Farmer Labor party, picked up enough suburban seats to retain a slim, but more progressive, majority in the lower chamber.
The house speaker, Melissa Hortman, said state Democrats viewed the trifecta as a fleeting window to legislate aggressively.
“Having Republicans in control of part of state government for the last 10 years and being prevented from doing really anything progressive at all created a lot of pent-up demand to chalk up some progressive victories,” said Hortman.
The laws on abortion, labor and voting rights passed at the urging of progressive groups like Reese’s Until We Are All Free, which joined more than 50 organizations to form the Restore The Vote coalition to push for the restoration of voting rights to people with felony convictions who are on probation and parole.
Proponents of the Restore the Vote law pointed out that Minnesota’s former restrictions for people with felonies impacted Black residents disproportionately. According to the research and advocacy group The Sentencing Project, Black Minnesotans were disenfranchised at four times the rate of white residents before the law was passed.
During the same session that the felony re-enfranchisement bill passed, the state passed the Democracy for the People Act, which, among other reforms, allows 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote, establishes automatic voter registration in some state agencies, requires voting materials be available in the three most commonly spoken languages in the state, and penalizes voter intimidation and lies.
Having passed the collection of voting legislation, the state has turned to implementation of the measures. Groups involved with the passage of Restore the Vote say that getting the more than 50,000 newly eligible voters registered will be the most significant challenge. Ja’Naé Bates, a minister who organized with other faith leaders in the Restore the Vote coalition, has trained canvassers to help people register to vote, knocking doors in her own St Paul neighborhood. Bates said the coalition’s voter registration drive is already taking place in churches, barbershops, and community gathering places.
“A lot of us have been doing people power organizing for a really long time, and we’re going through the tools that we know have really worked in that regard,” said Bates. “Barbershops and our Black churches are having forums, having flyers up, having conversations for folks to be able to get this information out and for folks to be able to tell their buddies, ‘You’re able to vote now.’”
Reese said his organization is focusing on hosting community events to get the word out about expanded voting rights in the state. “Prison is a fraternity and I spent close to 15 years there, so unfortunately I know a whole lot of people,” said Reese.
Without a specific account of everyone whose voting rights were restored this year, it’s harder for civil rights organizations to locate new potential voters. The Minnesota department of corrections houses most data on the criminal records of state residents, most of which is not publicly available.
“There are circumstances where [the department of corrections] are going to be able to share [the data] with us, and that’s good,” said the Minnesota secretary of state, Steve Simon. “But there are limitations on what we can then share with others.”
In other states that have implemented felon re-enfranchisement laws, voter registration among eligible voters with felony convictions remained low despite their new legal status. An investigation by the Marshall Project found that less than 25% of newly eligible voters in Nevada, Kentucky, Iowa and New Jersey had registered by the 2020 election, finding a lack of data on eligible voters a particular hurdle.
In Florida, where voters overwhelmingly approved a similar measure in 2018, Republican lawmakers undermined efforts to restore voting rights to people with felonies by passing additional legislation requiring people to pay off any fines associated with their sentence before voting. Proponents of voter re-enfranchisement in Minnesota view the Florida maneuver as a cautionary tale, and advocated for the law to be unequivocal in guaranteeing anyone out of prison the right to vote.
Simon said he hopes Minnesota’s accomplishment can be a model for other states.
“We hope what we’re creating is a prototype of the way to do it when you’re newly enfranchising people,” he said. The 2024 elections, he added, would be a “testing ground” for the state’s ability to quickly register thousands to vote.