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55,000 non-incarcerated felons will soon be eligible to vote in Minnesota

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Democrats across the country have been pushing for expanded voting rights at both state and federal level. In Minnesota, one such bill is about to become law. Brian Bakst of member station MPR News reports the measure would give the right to vote to thousands of people who have served time in prison.

BRIAN BAKST, BYLINE: Even with a major snowstorm bearing down, a large contingent showed up at the state Capitol to urge passage of a law giving Minnesota felons a right to vote after leaving custody. Since the 1960s, parole and probation have disqualified thousands of people.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

JANAE BATES: Fifty-five thousand people.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Fifty-five thousand people.

BAKST: Nonincarcerated felons locked out of voting in Minnesota tried to regain access in the courts, but failed. A legislative push 20 years in the making ultimately succeeded, propelled forward in a state house now fully in Democratic control. Lawmakers sent the felon voting bill to Gov. Tim Walz, who plans to sign it next week.

TIM WALZ: We should not continue to perpetually punish individuals.

BAKST: Senate President Bobby Joe Champion represents a diverse Minneapolis district and helped lead the drive. He says denying voter eligibility shoves felons trying to rebuild their lives to the side and does little to further public safety.

BOBBY JOE CHAMPION: We know that when people do structured and pro-social things, that good things happen. And why should we deny someone the right to vote? We want them to be connected to the community and a part of the fabric of our community.

BAKST: But most Republicans say with crime a concern, it's the wrong time to reduce consequences. And they sought to keep restrictions for people convicted of election fraud, sex crimes and murder. Sen. Andrew Mathews says there needs to be distinctions like in Delaware and Florida.

ANDREW MATHEWS: People that commit the crime of murder or manslaughter, they have permanently taken away their victim's right to vote.

BAKST: Minnesota will join 21 states in automatically granting voting rights after incarceration ends. Community organizer JaNae' Bates, who led those chants in the Capitol hallways, says it's personal. Her husband is currently serving time, and she predicts the Minnesota law will invite people back to the polls beyond those made newly eligible.

BATES: Because there's a lot of folks who actually can vote. They're off of probation and off of papers, and they don't realize that they have the right to vote.

BAKST: Democratic Secretary of State Steve Simon says his team is ready to do its part.

STEVE SIMON: This is a really big law change, so we're going to be there with our nonpartisan voter outreach folks making sure everyone gets word.

BAKST: Other proposals before Minnesota's legislature go hand in hand. Lawmakers could soon make voter registration automatic upon issuance of a driver's license or application for government programs. Advocates say that step will take one more hurdle out of the way for people who haven't had the chance to vote due to their past. For NPR News, I'm Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEB ZILLNER AND LAZLOW'S "SILK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Bakst