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With stacks of voter registration forms and red buttons reading "I will vote," more than a half dozen formerly ineligible voters and advocates fanned out to spread the word on the East Side of St. Paul about the restoration of felon voting rights Thursday.

"Starting today, access to our democracy has been expanded," said Antonio Williams, who is among an estimated 55,000 formerly incarcerated Minnesotans who can now vote because of the law passed during the recently completed legislative session.

Before heading out in the midday heat, Williams and supporters gathered for a news conference, rally and registration event with Secretary of State Steve Simon at the Arlington Hills Community Center.

Simon handed out the round red-and-white stickers, which resemble the popular "I voted" stickers given out at polling places on Election Day. "The words on the sticker are not just a hope; they are a reality," Simon said.

He said the bill is the largest single act of voter enfranchisement in more than 50 years, tracing back to 1971 when the voting age dropped from 21 to 18.

But Simon and Williams said getting the word out to newly eligible voters will be a challenge both in terms of identifying those voters and winning their trust. In some cases, word-of-mouth from trusted sources will be important.

Jasmine Kitto, who works with formerly incarcerated people as part of the New Justice Project MN, which supports Black Minnesotans as an organizing hub, was among the celebrants who will also be key to the outreach.

"Today is a joyful day," she said. "Our job is to get out here and inform people."

The new law, now in effect, restores the right to vote for felons immediately upon release from incarceration. Previously, Minnesotans had to wait to vote until they were off probation and had paid their fines. The new law also allows those who are incarcerated, but on work-release programs, to vote.

Jafar Braylock of Minneapolis, who spent 30 years in prison and was released two years ago, registered to vote for the first time in his life Thursday.
Jafar Braylock of Minneapolis, who spent 30 years in prison and was released two years ago, registered to vote for the first time in his life Thursday.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

Jennifer Schroeder signed her voter-registration form at the event. She lobbied for the new law and was a plaintiff in the lawsuit that went to the state Supreme Court in an unsuccessful effort to restore voting rights via the court system.

Schroeder is serving an unusual sentence: one year in jail and 40 years on probation. Under the old eligibility rules, she wouldn't have been eligible to vote until she's 71.

But at midnight Thursday, both she and Williams became eligible. Voter-registration forms now require the registrant to attest that they "are not currently incarcerated for a conviction of a felony offense."

Schroeder said she was honored to add her name to the voting rolls and likened the felon-voting movement to the suffragettes who spent decades fighting for women to get access to the ballot. "It's a lot more than voting," she said, adding that for a moment in the polling booth, "We are all equals."

Schroeder said she's an example of how one voice can make a difference, but the work continues. "We have to fulfill our duty and get to the booth to vote."

Among those celebrating with Simon, Schroeder and Williams were DFL Reps. Cedrick Frazier of New Hope and Emma Greenman of Minneapolis.

Frazier thanked those who had worked for the past two decades to try to pass the bill. He mentioned DFL Sen. Bobby Joe Champion and former state Rep. Ray Dehn, both of Minneapolis, as well as Attorney General Keith Ellison.

"Strong, enduring democracies allow for the voices of the people to be heard," Frazier said.

The change for felon rights came under some criticism both at the Legislature and after passage as detractors consider it a means to boost DFL turnout. Advocates countered that formerly incarcerated felons live throughout Minnesota and are of mixed political leanings.

Simon said he doesn't expect the change to favor one party. He noted that both Florida and North Dakota, which are not strong Democratic states, allow felons to vote upon release from incarceration.

Minnesota is the 21st state to allow voting-rights restoration upon release from incarceration. Some states allow it much earlier.

In Maine, Vermont and the District of Columbia, incarcerated people can vote while in prison or jail. Asked if he supported allowing incarcerated people to vote, Simon said he wasn't sure.

With the event wrapped up, Williams grabbed a stack of clipboards with pens to distribute to canvassers going into the surrounding neighborhood to spread the word, work that will continue through 2024, he said.