Denying thousands the fundamental human right to vote puts democracy at stake

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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.”[1] 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.[2] The law restores civil rights upon “discharge” of the conviction,[3] 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.[4]

International human rights standards guarantee the right to vote free from “unreasonable restrictions.”[5] The UN Human Rights Committee deems a disenfranchisement law “unreasonable” if it is “[dis]proportionate to the offense and the sentence.”[6] 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.”[7]

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.[8]

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 [9] 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.[10]

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.[11] The impact may be long-term:[12] 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.

[1] http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx

[2] Minn. Stat. 201.014 (2016).  https://www.revisor.mn.gov/statutes/?id=201.014&format=pdf

[3] Minn. Stat. 609.165 (2016). https://www.revisor.mn.gov/statutes/?id=609.165&format=pdf

[4] https://restorethevotemn.org/why-rights-restoration/

[5] ICCPR Art. 25.

[6] http://hrlibrary.umn.edu/gencomm/hrcom25.htm

[7] CCPR/C/USA/CO/4 para. 24.

[8] http://felonvoting.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000289

[9] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CERD.aspx

[10] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CCPR.aspx

[11] https://restorethevotemn.org/why-rights-restoration/

[12]

“I have a bullet in my foot from trying to vote!”

“I have a bullet in my foot from trying to vote!”

By Michele Garnett McKenzie

I’m sitting in my office, catching up with a former client. A member of the political opposition who fled Cameroon and sought asylum nearly a decade ago, she had stopped by to show me her new U.S. passport. Our talk turned to the November elections—she was so proud to finally be an American citizen and to be voting for the first time in the United States.

But when I mentioned that Minnesotans will be deciding whether to amend the constitution to require government-issued photo identification to vote, she became angry. I didn’t have to frame the issue for her. I didn’t have to give her any background about the Voting Rights Act or explain that this is a voter restriction proposal that threatens to disenfranchise thousands of Minnesotans. Before I could even tell her that The Advocates opposes the measure her eyes flashed and her voice became stern.

“You have no idea how precious the right to vote is,” she told me. “I have a bullet in my foot from trying to vote!”

Our clients have a first-hand understanding of what freedom and oppression mean

Her reaction started me thinking about how the passage of the amendments could affect the many people we’ve helped to find asylum from persecution over the past thirty years. Every one of our clients has a unique story of their flight from their homelands where they feared persecution, torture, or death on account of their identities and beliefs. I thought of Joe, one of my first clients at The Advocates. Born in Zimbabwe, where President Mugabe had long proclaimed homosexuals to be “worse than dogs or pigs,” Joe struggled for years to hide his identity out of fear of arrest, torture, and execution at the hands of the government. Arriving in the United States, he sought asylum on the basis of his sexual orientation. What might passage of the marriage restriction amendment say to him?

Immigrants have helped shape Minnesota’s proud tradition of protecting religious freedom

Some proponents of the marriage amendment assert that their religious freedom is at stake, but they ignore Minnesota’s proud tradition of protecting religious freedom—a tradition rooted in the experiences of early settlers, but very much alive to this day.

In 1988, Eli Hershberger and 13 other members of an Amish religious community were ticketed for operating black, horse-drawn buggies on a public highway in Fillmore County, Minnesota, without displaying an orange-red reflective triangle, as Minnesota law requires for slow-moving vehicles. Hershberger and the others were unwilling to compromise their belief that displaying the bright sign on their buggies would mean placing their faith in worldly symbols rather than in God.

The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld Hershberger’s challenge to the law, noting that “the early settlers of this region were of varied sects, may have endured religious intolerance in their native countries and were thus sensitive to religious differences among them.” Those experiences, the court observed, shaped the text of the liberty of conscience clause in the Minnesota Constitution:

The right of every man to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience shall never be infringed; nor shall any man be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any religious or ecclesiastical ministry, against his consent; nor shall any control of or interference with the rights of conscience be permitted, or any preference be given by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship . . . .

(Minnesota Constitution, Article I, § 16.) “This language is of a distinctively stronger character than the federal counterpart [in the First Amendment],” the court wrote, precluding “even an infringement on or an interferencewith religious freedom.” The court therefore allowed Hershberger and the others to use their proposed alternative: simple reflective tape and a lighted red lantern. The Kentucky Supreme Court, in contrast, just struck down a similar challenge brought by another group of Amish plaintiffs, ruling that the Kentucky Constitution’s protections for freedom of conscience go no further than the United States Constitution’s.

These rigorous protections should reassure people who object on religious grounds to same-sex marriage; no constitutional amendment is necessary to protect their religious freedom in Minnesota.

The proposed voter restriction amendment threatens religious freedom

Religious liberty might not be the first thing that comes to mind in discussions of voting procedures. But in the United States, the fundamental right to vote has been shaped by our respect for religious freedom. Most countries hold elections on weekends, while Election Day in the United States falls on a Tuesday, to accommodate Sabbath observances.

Religious freedom is at stake, because Minnesota’s proposed voting amendment would require all voters voting in person to present valid, government-issued photographic identification before receiving a ballot. The word “photographic” is key. According to a recent report by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, some Christians believe photographs violate the Ten Commandments. “Identification laws that require individuals to be photographed … may infringe upon these individuals’ First Amendment right to exercise their religious beliefs freely.” Mississippi—the only state to place a voter ID requirement in its constitution—has an exemption for religious objectors, as do similar laws in Indiana and Pennsylvania. Minnesota’s amendment, however, has no such exception.

As further evidence of Minnesota’s long history of broadly accommodating the free exercise of religion, Minn. Stat. 171.071 allows a religious objector to obtain a non-photographic state-issued identification card. According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, more than 100 people have these non-photographic Minnesota IDs.

But the proposed voting procedures amendment would erode Minnesota’s tradition of promoting religious freedom. The proposed amendment to the Minnesota Constitution would not allow any exemptions for religious objectors. It would require “[a]ll voters voting in person [to] present valid government-issued photographic identification before receiving a ballot.” “All voters” means no exceptions. So the more specific voting procedures amendment would trump the rigorous freedom of conscience clause in the Minnesota Constitution.

People who object on religious grounds to being photographed have a fundamental right to participate in our political process. The proposed amendment was poorly thought-out and fails to take into account our state’s long tradition of honoring freedom of conscience.

The Advocates for Human Rights opposes both amendments, and we are working hard to defeat them. My friend from Cameroon’s story inspires me as we work together to try and defeat the two Minnesota constitutional amendments that would restrict the right to vote and freedom to marry. Have you talked to your family, friends, and neighbors about how the proposed voter restriction amendment would affect voting rights, or how the proposed marriage restriction amendment would limit the freedom to marry? Could you make time this weekend to make calls or doorknock to help defeat the amendments? Visit Our Vote, Our Future and Minnesotans United for All Families for more information on how you can help.

Michele Garnett McKenzie is Advocacy Director at The Advocates for Human Rights. Thanks to staff attorney Amy Bergquist for the constitutional research.

Voter Restriction: More Than Meets The Eye

Voter Restriction: More Than Meets The Eye

Why I’m voting NO on the proposed amendment

by Amy Bergquist

The proposed voter restriction amendment has been in the news a lot lately and I’ve been hearing people say things like, “What’s the big deal with requiring an ID to vote? Heck, I need an ID to get into a bar or go to the doctor.” When I hear those questions, I can’t help but think about the unintended consequences the amendment would have for some of my neighbors.

Before starting law school at the University of Minnesota in 2004, I moved to downtown Minneapolis. Orientation leaders encouraged incoming students to fill out voter registration cards so we could vote in the fall elections. As most Minnesotans know, registration is a simple process. But one of the lessons I learned outside the classroom that year is that voter registration is far from simple for homeless citizens. The proposed amendment to the Minnesota Constitution would, in effect, disenfranchise many members of this vulnerable group.

Fire Station No. 1 and People Serving People

When I received my registration confirmation card in the mail, I learned that my new polling center would be Fire Station No. 1 at the corner of Portland Avenue and Third Street. Just across the street is the ten-story building that houses People Serving People (PSP), the largest family-focused temporary and emergency shelter for homeless Minnesotans. My house district, 59B, includes many other homeless shelters as well: Harbor Light Center; Mary’s Place; YouthLink; and Families Moving Forward. It’s no surprise, then, that 59B has the dubious distinction of leading the state with an estimated 6,800 registered voters who lack current or valid photo identification—outpacing the next-highest district by nearly 3,000 voters. Approximately 84,000 Minnesotans do not have a state-issued ID, and 131,000 have an ID that does not show their current address.

On Election Day in 2004, and again in 2008, I took time off to help some PSP residents go through the Election Day voter registration process. You don’t need a permanent address in order to vote in Minnesota.  Current law allows a voter to register with a non-current identification card and a current utility bill, but that provision that doesn’t help people who live in shelters and don’t pay utilities. Minnesota Statute 201.061 subdivision 3(a)(4) allows shelter employees to vouch for residents and also authorizes registered voters like me to vouch for voters who live in my precinct.

When the Minnesota Legislature decided to place the voter restriction amendment on the ballot this November, I thought back to my experiences vouching for my homeless neighbors. It’s not easy for homeless citizens to exercise their right to vote, but the proposed amendment would erect further obstacles to their participation in the political process by requiring “[a]ll voters voting in person [to] present valid government-issued photographic identification before receiving a ballot.” This may seem like a simple, straightforward requirement. Not so for Minnesota’s homeless citizens.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned while vouching for my homeless neighbors:

(1) Homeless citizens are committed to the democratic process.

I’ve been impressed by the strong commitment PSP residents have to civic participation. They were excited to vote and took their civic duty seriously. Many brought along their children, who were able to cast their own Kids Voting ballots. Kids Voting observes that “[t]his simple act takes the mystery out of the voting process and instills a sense of pride, accomplishment and responsibility which will stay with the student into adulthood.” These homeless families came out of the polling station beaming with pride, glad to add their voices to our democratic system.

I was equally impressed by PSP residents who were unable to vote. One family had moved to Minnesota just one week before the election and understood they weren’t yet eligible to vote. Another PSP resident told me he was eager to vote but couldn’t because he was still “on paper”—meaning his civil rights had not yet been restored. There was no hint of any desire to cheat the system or commit “voter fraud”; these citizens frankly accepted that they would have to wait for the next election to cast their vote.

James, a resident at Our Saviour’s Housing shelter in Minneapolis, described why he votes.

Listen to James discuss why he values his right to vote:

(2) For homeless citizens, “free” government-issued identification isn’t a realistic substitute for same-day voter registration.

The average length of a family’s stay at PSP is 37 days. So PSP’s residents don’t typically have time to obtain driver’s licenses or other identification to reflect their shelter address. The proposed amendment would require the state to “issue photographic identification at no charge to an eligible voter who does not have” a “valid government-issued” ID, but it’s not clear how quickly such IDs could be provided.

Election Day Registration: Proofs of Residence

“[T]he term ‘free’ conceals the true cost of the photographic identification requirement,” Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson observed in his dissent last month. “The cost of obtaining the required supporting documentation, especially for elderly and vulnerable populations, can be substantial.” At the Minneapolis Homeless Connect event this May, one third of attendees sought help obtaining IDs or birth certificates.

Colleen O’Connor Toberman, Volunteer Coordinator at Our Saviour’s Housing, explains the burdens homeless people face in obtaining a “valid government-issued” ID:

Our shelter residents don’t have a permanent address. They may not currently drive, travel, work, go to bars, or do any of those other ID-requiring things most of us take for granted. In fact, one of the first things many shelter residents request from our staff is help acquiring an ID. That can be a lengthy process because their supporting documents have been lost or stolen during countless moves. . . .

Once lost, replacing these documents is not easy [or] cheap. The amendment makes the photo ID itself free, but not the supporting papers. A Minnesota birth certificate costs $26. Obtaining documents such as this (when that’s even possible) or the photo card requires a trip to the county government center. That necessitates transportation and time off from a job that probably doesn’t offer paid time off. . . .

Even if a homeless individual acquires proper identification, what address to put on it? Most shelters and housing programs limit stays. Some offer just one night at a time, making it impossible to count on residing in the same place [on Election Day] when applying for an ID.

(3) The voter restriction amendment would place homeless citizens at an unfair disadvantage in exercising their fundamental right to vote.

Voting is a human right, not a privilege. We shouldn’t blame parents facing the stress of being homeless, living in a shelter, raising kids, keeping a job, and seeking long-term housing for not having the time or resources to jump through myriad hoops in a race to get an ID before Election Day. PSP residents are far from idle; I’m exhausted just reading about this “typical day” at the shelter. But if the amendment passes, we’ll send a message to homeless citizens: If you want to participate in the democratic process, you must prioritize plowing through bureaucratic paperwork to get a soon-to-be obsolete ID over far more pressing tasks that have tangible, long-term, socially beneficial consequences—like finding permanent shelter and obtaining steady employment.

On November 6, I’ll be back at PSP. I’ll continue my practice of not talking politics, but I’ll be silently hoping this won’t be the last time I’ll have the opportunity help some of my homeless neighbors exercise their right to vote.

Have you talked to your family, friends, and neighbors about how the proposed voter restriction amendment would restrict voting rights? The Advocates for Human Rights recognizes that voting is a fundamental human right and opposes the proposed amendment. Visit Our Vote, Our Future for more information.

House District 59B DFL Primary Election Recount, Aug. 23, 2012

All photos by the author.

Amy Bergquist is the International Justice Program Staff Attorney at The Advocates for Human Rights.