‘Now I’m a part of society’: The push continues to register formerly incarcerated Minnesotans to vote under new law

14 July 2023

Milton Rucker said he found out about a voter registration event from what might sound like an unusual source: the federal probation service.

Three different times before the event last week that was sponsored by the Minnesota League of Women Voters, Rucker received messages from the people who supervise his release from federal prison. Each reminded him that he could do something he’d never done before, vote. But first he had to do something else he’d never done before, register to vote.

Rucker was all in.

“I was in and out of trouble, so basically I lost the right to vote,” said the 50-year-old Rucker. “In the last three years I finally turned it around. I turned my life around and this is a plus for me.”

The League of Women Voters registration event was one of six across the state, done with the Minnesota Department of Corrections and the Minnesota office of U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services. The purpose was to sign up new voters but it also highlighted the role corrections agencies are playing in a campaign to take advantage of a law passed during the 2023 state legislative session. House File 28 restored voting rights to people convicted of crimes but no longer living in prison or jail.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Milton Rucker

Prior to passage, people had to wait until their periods of probation or parole ended — a status sometimes termed being “on paper.” While the state of Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission has put a five-year cap on post-release supervision for most crimes committed after 2020, many people released from incarceration received longer terms. A provision in the 2023 Judiciary and Public Safety omnibus law allows retroactive resentencing to cap probation for many offenders at five years.

Still, the last people released inmates see upon leaving prison are the discharge staff at the prisons. Among the first people they see after they are released are probation and parole staff. Both the state and federal agencies said last week they are trying to provide information about the new law.

Kito Bess, chief U.S. probation officer for Minnesota  said his office now includes voting as part of the first orientation session with recently released inmates.

“Under the old law we did it at the back end,” Bess said. “When they completed their supervision, we would send voting information to them by letter as part of their termination of supervision.” Now, it is contained in the orientation packet.

The agency also has altered its use of its Client Emergency Notification System —an emergency alert texting application — to include more general information. Those are the notices Rucker received about the new law and last week’s registration event.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Kito Bess, chief U.S. probation officer for Minnesota, said his agents notify people when they start their probation period.

State Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said his agency now gives voter registration forms to inmates as they are leaving prison and agents who supervise parole and probation have also been directed to provide registration information. House File 28 that changed the point at which formerly incarcerated people could vote, directed the secretary of state to prepare information and required Schnell to share it with his agents. 

“Supervising agents are also being advised to make sure, as they have conversations with released inmates, that their rights to vote are restored,” Schnell said. But the information is sometimes hard to get across. Secretary of State Steve Simon said he frequently door-knocked formerly incarcerated people who thought they had permanently lost the right to vote, whether still on paper or not. Simon said he thinks the messaging is easier now — you’re out of prison or jail, you can vote.

The legislation was passed and signed by Gov. Tim Walz March 3. On June 28, attorneys working with the Upper Midwest Law Center filed a suit in state court claiming that the Legislature lacked legal authority to change the definition of when voting rights could be restored.

The constitution says people convicted of felonies may not vote “unless restored to civil rights.” That has been interpreted as being when a sentence is complete and that since there was no parole when the constitution was written, sentences mean both incarceration and supervised release, the lawsuit asserts

Only by amending the constitution can the state restore voting rights and other civil rights when someone is out of prison but still under the supervisory portion of their sentence.

The court ruled in Schroeder v. Simon that it lacked authority to overturn the former statute on equal protection grounds. But it did find that the Legislature had the authority to decide when inmates are restored to civil rights.

“… although (state law), on the claim raised here, passes constitutional muster, we recognize the troubling consequences, including the disparate racial impacts, flowing from the disenfranchisement of persons convicted of a felony,” Justice Paul Thissen wrote for the 6-1 majority. “The Legislature retains the power to respond to those consequences. The Minnesota Constitution empowers the Legislature to address the public policy concerns raised by appellants in this case; public policy concerns that the Secretary of State shares and that directly implicate — even if (state law) does not violate — the fundamental right to vote. We should all take care that persons not be deprived of the ability to participate in the political process out of fear of our fellow citizens.”

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Secretary of State Steve Simon said he frequently door-knocked formerly incarcerated people who thought they had permanently lost the right to vote, whether still on paper or not.

Simon said last week that while the case is being litigated he wouldn’t speak to the details of the claim. But he said he thinks the Legislature was on strong legal footing when it passed HF 28.

“We feel very confident,” Simon said. And he stressed that the pending suit does not stop the implementation of the new law, including voter registration drives such as  the League of Women Voters’.

Those wanting to register to vote can use the online portal on the secretary of state website or at city and county elections offices. In addition, Minnesota has same-day registration that allows voters to register at the polls before voting. The league registered just 18 people at six different locations last week, illustrating the challenge of bringing attention to the law change. It and others will keep pushing.

“We know that people, no matter who they are, have to be asked maybe seven times before they’ll actually vote,” said Michelle Witte, executive director of the league. “A lot of these events are to continue to keep the message out there that this is now available to you.”

Rucker said he was released from federal prison in 2020 and was expecting to have to wait to register until his five-year probation period ended in September, 2025. The new law advanced that timetable.

“This feels wonderful because people can hear my voice. I have a right to vote now.” Rucker said while touching the red “I Will Vote” sticker given him by league staffers after he signed the paperwork. Rucker said his grandson was one month old when he returned from prison in Illinois.

“That was a plus,” Rucker said. “I’m a role model so I have to show him the right ways instead of the wrong ways. Now I’m a part of society, I can vote, I can show other people that you have a voice.”

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