‘My voice matters’: Felons vote at polls for first time after voting rights restored

Published 9:07 pm Tuesday, November 7, 2023

By Nicole Ki, Minnesota Public Radio News

Tuesday was special for Minnesotans like Moncies Franco Sr., who voted for the first time since their voting rights were restored in June thanks to Minnesota’s new Restore the Vote law.

Prior to change, Franco and roughly 55,000 other Minnesotans with a convicted felony could not vote until their full sentence (probation or supervised release) was completed.

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“I was nervous,” said Franco about putting his ballot in. “I’m like, oh, okay hold on. Is this legit, is this real? Pinch myself a little bit to wake up. But after those nerves settled, it’s like, yeah, I belong here. My voice matters.”

Franco, 42, was released from prison in 2019. He is on supervised release and would’ve had to wait until 2028 to vote if not for the new law. He brought his husband and son to vote together at Powderhorn Recreation Center in south Minneapolis.

For Franco, being able to vote means breaking a generational cycle of incarceration for his family.

“I’m a third-generation incarcerated adult, meaning my father’s uncle was in prison. My father was in prison. And myself. What Restore the Vote has done for me, it’s changed the generational patterns within my family,” Franco said. “I don’t want anybody to make decisions about me without me.”

Outside Powderhorn Recreation Center he ran into his friend Zeke Caligiuri, who was there to vote for his first time ever. Caligiuri, 46, was released from prison last year. The two hugged, sharing a moment to appreciate what voting meant to both of them.

Inside the polling center, election workers applauded Caligiuri after he dropped his ballot into the box.

“It feels great,” Caligiuri said. “But it’s also just a lot. You know, it’s the culmination of a lot of work that a lot of people did before I ever got here, right. The idea of voting rights, something that goes back since the beginning of our country in the way they’ve used the votes to control other people. This is a thing, like, part of the reclaiming of our own humanity. So it’s hella important for me.”

Caligiuri works with Minnesota Justice Research Center, which is part of the Restore the Vote Coalition, a group of over 50 organizations across Minnesota that have worked since 2014 to get the law passed.

Daiquawn Michael Burrell-Smith, 26, spent Election Day at the downtown Minneapolis headquarters of T.O.N.E. U.P, another organization in the Restore the Vote Coalition that helps Minnesotans like himself rejoin their communities after incarceration.

The room inside Open Book was filled with about a dozen people who were working the phones and mobilizing people to vote, including notable leaders in the formerly incarcerated community like Myon Burrell and Justin Terrell. Burrell-Smith was making calls to get people to vote on Tuesday before going to the polls himself to cast his first-ever ballot.

“To be honest, I feel like it feels good to be able to vote again,” Burrell-Smith said. “They took five years from me. So being able to come out and actually being able to vote again, it’s a good feeling. Like it’s definitely different, I ain’t never did it so we gone see how it go.”

Also at the T.O.N.E. U.P. headquarters was Kevin Reese, who was 18 years old when he went to prison for 14 years. He said voting reminded him of what’s most important to him: democracy and having a voice.

“The idea of being able to vote again to my 18-year-old self that was convicted that day — we live in a revolutionary futuristic time,” said Reese, 37, who is raising his daughter in Brooklyn Park. He founded Until We Are All Free, another organization in the coalition.

“I voted as a homeowner, as a father, as a brother, as an uncle, as a business owner,” said Reese. “I run a nonprofit. So I voted with all of those things in mind. And, you know, I sit here and say, yeah this is amazing, but we have so much more stuff to do.”

The monumental day comes despite two legal challenges that attempted to undercut it. Last Thursday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals struck down a legal challenge by Mille Lacs County District Court Judge Matthew Quinn against Restore the Vote. Quinn had barred at least six defendants from voting as part of their sentences and argued the voting law was unconstitutional.

In an order, Chief Judge Susan Segal wrote that Quinn had no authority to declare the law unconstitutional. And Segal said Quinn’s actions were “unauthorized by law.”

Another lawsuit by conservative voter’s group Minnesota Voters Alliance is pending in Anoka County before District Court Judge Thomas Lehmann. A first hearing was held on Oct. 30, but Lehmann has not issued a ruling on the case yet.