It’s that time of the year once again in the United States: absentee ballots are rolling in and voters are preparing to go to the polls. Some of us, even 20-somethings like me who are new to the grind, take participation in the democratic process for granted. As a child, I made the trek with my parents to our polling place every year, filled with an overwhelming sense of pride when they let me wear the “I Voted” pin. In my eyes, voting was just something that adults did – it was never more complicated than that.
Voting is a right that all of-age citizens are supposed to enjoy, thanks to the fundamental human right of “universal and equal suffrage.” Recently, however, I began to realize that suffrage is neither universal nor equal in the United States. A few weeks ago at a phone banking event, I spoke with a man who is forbidden from voting for another 10 years because he is currently on parole. This man committed a felony decades ago, served his time, and yet remains deprived of his civil rights.
Minnesota law restricts “any individual convicted of treason or any felony whose civil rights have not been restored” from voting. The law restores civil rights upon “discharge” of the conviction, but that doesn’t happen until probation or parole has ended. The result: 75 percent of the 63,000 Minnesotans who were unable to vote due to a conviction in 2011 were living in the community on probation or parole.
International human rights standards guarantee the right to vote free from “unreasonable restrictions.” The UN Human Rights Committee deems a disenfranchisement law “unreasonable” if it is “[dis]proportionate to the offense and the sentence.” That’s the case in Minnesota, where convicted persons who have served their time behind bars return to the community unable to vote for years or even decades. Minnesota’s blanket disenfranchisement provision, which automatically prohibits all persons convicted of any felony from voting, further breaches this doctrine, which prohibits the “automatic denial of the vote to any imprisoned felon, regardless of the nature of the offence.”
Felon disenfranchisement laws vary around the country. Two states, Maine and Vermont, have no restrictions, allowing people on probation, parole, and in prison to vote. Maine and Vermont share the approach of many democracies around the world. Minnesota, by contrast, stands with Armenia and Chile in banning people from voting even after release from prison.
Compounding the injustice, as a result of racial disparities in contact with the criminal justice system, Minnesota’s policy of disenfranchisement disproportionately strips African Americans and American Indians of the right to vote, violating U.S. obligations under article 5 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination  and article 25 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to vote free from discrimination based on race, color, language, or other status.
The numbers are sobering. According to the Restore the Vote coalition, African Americans, roughly five percent of the state’s population, made up 25 percent of those disenfranchised in 2011; American Indians, two percent of Minnesota’s population, represented six percent of those disenfranchised. The impact may be long-term: that “I Voted” pin helped introduce me to the importance of voting; kids whose parents are denied the right to vote are shut out of that introduction to the democratic process.
The Advocates for Human Rights is part of Minnesota’s Restore the Vote coalition, an alliance of almost 100 groups working to change Minnesota’s policy on disenfranchisement. For more than 10 years, the coalition, led in part by disenfranchised community members, has pushed for the reinstatement of voting rights for those living in Minnesota. This coalition is advocating for a human right that too many of us fail to appreciate. As Election Day approaches, consider what is at stake if Minnesota continues to deny the fundamental human right to vote to thousands of our neighbors. Perhaps this will motivate each of us to strive for a more just democracy for ourselves and our kids.
By: Ellie Benson, a student at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and a research intern at The Advocates for Human Rights.
 Minn. Stat. 201.014 (2016). https://www.revisor.mn.gov/statutes/?id=201.014&format=pdf
 Minn. Stat. 609.165 (2016). https://www.revisor.mn.gov/statutes/?id=609.165&format=pdf
 ICCPR Art. 25.
 CCPR/C/USA/CO/4 para. 24.