Ex-felons in Rochester say getting the right to vote is 'life-changing'
Mar. 18—ROCHESTER — Dondi McIntosh will cast his first ballot in a national election next year when he is 51 years old.
Some rights, like voting, aren't appreciated until a person gets older. For McIntosh, of Rochester, the appreciation is heightened because the franchise had until recently been denied to him.
That changed earlier this month when Minnesota DFL Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill that
restored the voting rights of formerly incarcerated felons
who are still on probation.
McIntosh calls it "life-changing."
To people who regard voting as a God-given right, that may sound like a bit of hyperbole. But from McIntosh's point of view, being restored to the franchise has been transformative.
Ever since being released from prison after serving 15 years on a drug-related felony, McIntosh has worked to claw back those things that not only allow a person to function in society but give a sense of identity and self-worth: a birth certificate, a Social Security number, a driver's license and the right to vote.
"It's one of those components that you don't realize the value of until it's taken from you," McIntosh said. "All those things that fell through the cracks because of me being incarcerated. Your sense of humanity jumps ten-fold" when those things are restored.
It's a theme that comes up again and again in interviews with Rochester area residents who served time for felony-related offenses and were denied the vote while on parole. To vote is to have a voice, to be able to contribute, to be a full-fledged citizen, to be given a second chance. It is when that right is taken or forfeited that its loss is acutely felt.
Though they may have been restored to society after serving prison time, there is a sense of being an outcast when the right to vote is withheld, McIntosh and others said.
For Christie Wilkins, having the right to vote restored is akin to being given a second chance at life.
"People do wrong all the time," Wilkins said. "But do they have a second chance to change their life?"
Wilkins served two prison terms for drug-related offenses. While on parole, she felt the loss of the franchise keenly. In 2008, when the Black community had the opportunity to vote for the first Black president in Barack Obama in a national election, she was not allowed to vote.
"That was something the Black community wanted to engage in, but as an (ex-felon), we couldn't engage in that," Wilkins said.
And even when Wilkins had paid her debt to society and was no longer on parole, Wilkins encountered bureaucratic hurdles that hindered her right to vote. Last year, when she went to her polling station to cast a ballot, election judges told her her name had been "flagged." It still showed her as being on parole when she wasn't.
"I wasn't leaving until I voted, because I knew I was able to vote at this point in time, because I wasn't on papers," Wilkins said.
When Walz signed the bill into law, it allowed as many as 55,000 formerly incarcerated felons to vote. Walz hailed it as the largest expansion of voting rights in Minnesota in half a century. The law will go into effect on July 1.
Legislators opposed to the bill argued that convicted felons should not be able to vote until their sentences were completed, both in prison and on parole.
There is a partisan dimension to the issue of restoring voting rights to ex-felons, because of the belief that these voters are more likely to vote for Democrats. Democrats, who pledged to change the law, control both chambers of the Legislature.
With the bill's signing, Minnesota joined 21 other states that automatically restore the right to vote for some or all ex-felons upon their release from prison, according to the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks election laws at the state level.
For Ka'Juan Parker, the new law shows that "people still matter." A Rochester machinist, Parker felt there was double-standard in the way ex-felons were treated under the old law.
"If you're a convicted felon, you don't stop paying taxes," said Parker, who said he has never been to prison but was put on felony probation for fleeing police. "I feel if you can't vote because of a felony, you shouldn't have to pay state or federal taxes. On the flip side, we're all in this together."
While in prison, McIntosh said, he came under the influence of mentors who changed his life. They taught him about the importance of action, of bringing about change through participation and involvement.
The phrase that captured that philosophy — and was drilled into him while in prison — was "Don't talk about it. Be about it." Being denied the right to vote relegated him to the sidelines, a bystander, not a complete citizen. Being able to vote meant he could be a participant and weigh in on issues that he has come to realize are important to his life, from housing to transportation. It allowed him to "Be about it."
"You can't complain about a system that you are not participating in. You have the right to complain if you vote," McIntosh said. "That's why I say life-changing."