Minnesota Senate sends felon voting rights to governor's desk, passes licenses for people in U.S. illegally

Senators also approved a "Driver’s Licenses For All” bill, which would remove the requirement for license applicants to provide proof of citizenship or lawful presence in the country.

JaNaé Bates leads a chant Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, during a rally in favor of restoring voting rights to previously incarcerated residents at the Minnesota State Capitol.
Tim Evans for MPR News

ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Senate on Tuesday night, Feb. 21, passed bills restoring voting rights to felons and allowing people in the U.S. illegally to obtain a state driver's license. Both are headed to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

Felons in Minnesota can not vote until they have completed their parole or probation and paid fines related to their sentence. The felon voting rights bill, which passed 35-30 on Tuesday night, will restore voting rights to around 50,000 Minnesotans.

The decision comes more than a year after the American Civil Liberties Union argued the case in the hopes of restoring voting rights to more than 50,000 felons on probation in the state.

“If a person is not incarcerated and in our communities, they should have the right to vote,” said Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, a Minneapolis DFLer carrying the bill in the Senate. “There’s already been a decision made by the courts and others where they should be, they are safe, they are paying taxes, they’re raising families and they are doing everything they need to do in order to be in our communities.” 

The House passed the bill earlier this month, and Gov. Tim Walz said he supports the bill. After he signs it, the new law would go into effect July 1.

Last week, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the felon voting ban, which the American Civil Liberties Union and others challenged in court. Opponents of the ban argue it disproportionately affects Black Minnesotans and Native Americans. The court acknowledged the disparate impact but ruled the law was still constitutional, sending the issue back to the Legislature to decide.


Minnesota is one of 16 states, including South Dakota and Wisconsin, that only allows people with felony convictions to vote upon 100% completion of their sentence. North Dakota does not allow people in prison to vote but does not have any other restrictions after release. Twenty-one states automatically restore voting rights upon release, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Washington, D.C., Maine and Vermont allow everyone to vote, including incarcerated people.

Floor debate started earlier Tuesday, but the Senate tabled the bill so members could complete committee business. The legislature canceled all its committee hearings before an expected record snowstorm, and members resumed debate Tuesday night. Republicans earlier Tuesday introduced an amendment to the bill that would exclude people convicted of child sexual abuse from having their rights restored.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, brought up a recent child sex abuse case in the Twin Cities metro area and questioned on the floor whether someone convicted of an offense like that should be treated the same as other felons.

“We should be recognizing a proportionality in the sentences as well as in the right to vote,” he said. “That individual who committed that crime against two little girls — you cannot convince me that that person is on the road to rehabilitation when he only spends six months in a jail, time served and then he'll go out on probation.”

'Driver's Licenses For All' passes

Senators on Tuesday night also approved a"Driver’s Licenses For All” bill, which would remove the requirement for license applicants to provide proof of citizenship or lawful presence in the country. After hours of debate extending into the early morning hours of Wednesday, the Senate voted 34-31 to approve the bill.

The licenses measure already passed the House last month, and Walz said he supports the bill.

The “Driver’s Licenses For All” bill would remove the requirement for license applicants to provide proof of citizenship or lawful presence.

Twenty years ago, Minnesota barred those without legal immigration status from obtaining a license from the state. Advocates say people in the U.S. illegally will often drive regardless of whether they can obtain a license, and that they shouldn’t be forced to live in fear while getting to work, medical appointments or taking their children to school. They also argue expanding licenses would also mean more vetting for drivers, and insurance for drivers in the U.S. illegally, resulting in safer roads.

As the Senate took up the bill Tuesday night, activists supporting the legislation filled the capitol and could be heard cheering from outside the Senate chamber as floor debate started.


"Undocumented Minnesotans' freedom was taken away from them in 2003 and they've been fighting ever since then," said Senate bill sponsor Zaynab Mohamed, a Minneapolis DFLer. "Just outside this chamber there are hundreds of immigrants whose lives will be completely transformed by this bill ... they'll be able to drive to work, they'll be able to take their kids to school, they'll be able to take their kids to the playground and they'll be able to live their lives with dignity."

“Driver’s Licenses For All” would not apply to enhanced driver’s licenses or Real ID, which both require proof of U.S. citizenship. The type of license anyone would be able to obtain would be a noncompliant Class D state driver's license. The bill would also expand the set of documents a license applicant could use to prove state residence. Licenses could not bear any indication of the possessor’s citizenship or immigration status.

Republicans expressed concerns that the licenses could be used for voter fraud, and they attempted to amend the bill to create safeguards. They have also pointed to a separate bill Democrats are moving through the legislature this session which would create automatic voter registration in Minnesota, creating a system that would likely draw from the state driver's license database.

"We understand the public safety issue. We understand we need our workers to our jobs. We all understand that we can all get on board with that," said Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault. "The biggest thing that I hear in my district is why are we giving a legal driver's license that is the identical license that we as legal citizens have to people who are here illegally? There should be some differentiation between the two."

On the Senate floor, Republicans introduced multiple amendments to the bill, including requiring the licenses to be marked as not for voting and for the law to expire when the federal REAL ID requirement fully applies to Minnesota.

Democrats have said concerns about voting are a “red herring” and point out that voters must attest to being a citizen of the U.S. when registering and that lying about citizenship would be a felony that could potentially result in deportation.

Follow Alex Derosier on Twitter @xanderosier or email .

This story was updated at 2:03 a.m. on Feb. 22 with results of the final vote on the licenses bill. It was originally posted at 5:22 p.m. It also corrects the amendments Republicans introduced to the felon voting rights bill.


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Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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