Last week, Minnesota resident Eric Willems was sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years on probation. His crime: voting. Willems was on probation when he cast his ballot in Roseau County last November, and in Minnesota people on probation for a felony are not eligible to vote.
Voting was part of Willems’ effort to turn his life around. Before he headed to the polls on November 4th, he left a message for his probation officer telling him about his plans for the day. Later that day, his probation officer broke the bad news: for Willems, voting was a criminal act.
Willems, understandably, was surprised to find voting could be a crime. Felony disenfranchisement laws are complicated and confuse many citizens and election officials. Often vaguely worded and complex, the laws vary widely from state to state. Minnesota restores the right to vote after a citizen completes his sentence, including prison, parole, and probation. But some states restore voting rights upon release from prison, others upon completion of parole, and others impose waiting periods or other contingencies and categories before restoring voting rights.
As a recent report by the Brennan Center and the ACLU makes clear, these felony disenfranchisement laws are only half the story. The patchwork of laws causes persistent confusion among voters, and the report found that election officials across the country are unclear about basic voter eligibility rules for their state.
Disenfranchisement laws, like the one in Minnesota, are more than just a barrier for people reintegrating back into society, they provide grounds to prosecute people for trying to participate in their communities. No one condones intentional voter fraud, but that’s not the issue here. Prosecuting those who are confounded by inconsistent, poorly constructed laws that bewilder even election officials, seems counterproductive and undemocratic.
Like millions of other Americans, Willems said (subscription required) that he was “just excited that the presidential election was coming up and [that he] would be able to vote.” Is criminalizing conduct that stems from such sentiments really the best use of our law enforcement resources?
Willems’s case should be a wake-up call for Minnesota’s legislature and elections officials. Restoring voting rights to people as soon as they are released from prison is a simple solution. Doing so would streamline the law and create a commonsense approach: if you are out of prison and living in the community, you can vote.
Meanwhile Willems’s attempt to cast a vote in the manner of responsible citizens landed him in a small gray cell where, for the next thirty days, he will no doubt have many opportunities to wonder whether his attempt at democratic engagement was more trouble than it was worth.