Zeke Caligiuri got out of prison in April 2022, but a parole period that lasts until 2034 had put a chance to vote into the distance.
For Elizer Darris and Antonio Williams, regaining voting rights wasn’t supposed to happen until 2025.
Jennifer Schroeder’s felony probation could have kept her from the voting booth until 2053.
All four became newly registered to vote Thursday thanks to a monumental shift in state law that speeds up eligibility to an estimated 55,000 Minnesotans whose criminal records previously got in the way.
It’s Minnesota’s biggest single enfranchisement since the voting age was lowered to 18 a half century ago.
The new law, which was approved in February, just kicked in and allows people who aren’t incarcerated to vote regardless of whether they remain on parole or probation, which had been disqualifiers before.
Opponents of the change argued at the Capitol that it improperly reduces punishments for serious crimes and sends the wrong message about consequences for actions. Supporters said just as forcefully that the old way ostracized people who are trying hard to reintegrate into society and atone for their past.
“For a long time we’ve used punitive measures to fix the things that we’re afraid of in society. We use those things to legislate safety and fear, and I just feel like it’s time to start moving into a different social consciousness,” Caliguiri said as he filled out his form.
Schroeder proudly affixed an “I will vote” sticker to her shirt after signing her registration form at a rally organized by “Restore the Vote” organizers and attended by Secretary of State Steve Simon and lawmakers instrumental in changing the law.
“It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor or Black or white or come from a great family or have no family, when you go into that booth to cast that ballot we are on the same playing field. We are all equals for that moment,” Schroeder told an audience at an east St. Paul community center.
Schroeder had been part of a lawsuit and legislative campaign to restore voting rights sooner. Now, she’s joining in efforts to promote the change, which included a door-to-door canvass near the community center to encourage voter registrations.
Williams, who was released from prison in June 2020 after serving 13 years, said the messenger is important. He said there could be hesitance among some people who fear a misstep after previously being ineligible to vote.
“That’s why it’s important for us who are directly impacted to go out and do the initial outreach,” Williams said. “It’s not about trying to convince them. It’s about trying to educate them, showing them that, ‘Hey, this is actually the facts, this is the law.’”
There are limitations about what the Department of Corrections can share about people with felony records. While it might be able to give information to the Secretary of State’s Office, that office can’t necessarily share it with groups looking to connect with potential voters.
Williams and members of the Restore the Vote coalition said that makes it essential for them to tap into their networks as they fan out or conduct phone banks. The 2023 elections are largely local, meaning the bigger push could happen as the 2024 presidential election arrives.
As Thursday’s canvass began, organizers told volunteers to be mindful about how they approach people so they’re not stigmatized.
“We’re not saying ‘Hey, are you criminally justice impacted? Have you been incarcerated? Have you served time?’ We’re not using that language,” Williams said. “We’re not leading with that. What we are saying is, `Hey, have you heard about the new changes to our voting laws?’”
The first tangible sign of the law change is in the voter registration forms themselves. They now make clear that a person who is no longer incarcerated can vote as long as they meet other standard age, citizenship and residency requirements. Simon said the system update came at midnight Thursday.
“There’s another sense in which a switch was flipped. It was flipped on democracy,” Simon said. “It is now expanded, it is now bigger, it is now healthier, it is now stronger than it was just yesterday. And that’s because at the stroke of midnight, just a few hours ago, 55,000 Minnesotans who didn’t have the right to vote yesterday, now have that right.”