MOORHEAD — This year, Leane LaFrance's birthday falls on Election Day. She'll be turning 35, but she won't be casting a ballot.
LaFrance knows voting is a civic duty, but Minnesota law prohibits her from doing so while she's on felony probation. The Moorhead mother and addiction counselor is among an estimated 63,340 Minnesotans who can't vote because they're on probation, parole or in prison due to a felony conviction, according to a report released this fall by The Sentencing Project.
In recent years, there's been an effort to bring Minnesota's felon-voting restrictions in line with North Dakota's law, which gives voting rights to people on felony probation and parole but not to inmates serving felony sentences.
The Minnesota Senate approved such a change last year and this year, so that, like in North Dakota, felons would immediately regain the right to vote when released from incarceration. But both times the legislation stalled in the House.
Andy Cilek, executive director of the Minnesota Voters Alliance, said his group believes the law is fine the way it is. Given that a felony is a serious crime, he said, felons ought to complete their terms of probation or parole before voting.
Proponents of revising the law plan to try again during the 2017 legislative session, said Mark Haase, coordinator for Restore the Vote Minnesota, a coalition of groups in favor of the change, including the Minnesota Corrections Association and the Minnesota County Attorneys Association.
Haase said the coalition's goal in extending voting rights to those on felony parole and probation is to reduce recidivism and improve public safety. "Once you're out of prison and in the community, we want those folks to be doing positive things in the community, and voting is one of them," he said.
LaFrance, who was convicted in 2006 for selling drugs, is quick to note that she now owns a home, pays taxes and is a working professional. "Yet I don't have a say-so in what happens in my community through the electoral process, and that is not fair," she said. "How long should one have to pay for their wrong deeds?"
6.1 million can't vote
The report by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research and advocacy group in Washington, D.C., estimated that 6.1 million adults in the U.S. - 2.5 percent of the voting age population - are disenfranchised because of felon-voting prohibitions.
The report highlighted the disproportionate effect such laws have on black people across the country. "One in 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than that of non-African Americans," the report said.
In Minnesota, an estimated 7.3 percent of black adults can't vote because of felon-voting restrictions, compared with 1.5 percent of the general population. In North Dakota, an estimated 2.1 percent of black adults can't vote because they are inmates serving felony sentences, compared with 0.4 percent of the general population.
Haase acknowledged this disproportionate impact, but he pointed out that the majority of disenfranchised Minnesotans are white. Cilek said he doesn't see the issue in terms of race.
Felons "need to complete their sentence regardless of skin color," he said. "The policy should be race neutral."
Confusion over law
Cilek claims the attempt to change the law is a ploy to grab more votes for Democratic candidates. Haase says it shouldn't matter whether the law change results in more votes for Democrats or Republicans.
"We're doing this because we want people in the community to have a say in the community," Haase said.
Cilek also asserts that changing the law would require amending the state constitution, a step voters would have to approve. Haase said after some legal research, his coalition concluded that a constitutional amendment isn't needed.
Clay County Attorney Brian Melton said he believes Minnesota already has the right felon-voting policy. He said simply leaving prison should not be the deciding factor of when someone can vote again.
"It's a question of whether a person can accept being responsible," he said. "If they can't, then they should have certain rights restricted, such as voting."
Melton said he occasionally prosecutes people who voted while on felony parole or probation. It's often that such people were confused and thought they were allowed to vote, he said.
It's a trend that cuts the other way, too, Haase said. "I'm always meeting people who actually legally can vote but think they can't," he said.
Patchwork of state laws
Felon-voting laws vary around the country. Thirteen states, including Montana, have laws similar to North Dakota's. Seventeen states, including South Dakota and Wisconsin, have laws like Minnesota's. Four states allow people on felony probation to vote but not those in prison or on parole.
A dozen states restrict the voting rights of felons even after they've completed their prison, probation and parole sentences. One of these states is Florida, which has the highest share of adults - 10.4 percent - who can't vote because of felon-voting restrictions.
The only states with no constraints are Maine and Vermont, where even inmates serving felony sentences can cast ballots.
In Minnesota and North Dakota, inmates who are not serving felony sentences can legally vote. At the Clay County Jail in Moorhead, Jail Administrator Julie Savat said inmates awaiting trial or serving misdemeanor sentences can get permission to vote at the polls while on work release or they can request an absentee ballot.
However, Savat and her Cass County counterpart, Capt. Andy Frobig, said it's rare for inmates to ask for absentee ballots. Savat, who's worked at the jail for 25 years, said she recalls it happening only once or twice.
Both jail administrators said nothing is done to encourage inmate voting. "We're not doing any voter drives or anything," Frobig said.
'To use my voice'
When LaFrance was using drugs as a young adult, she wasn't voting. And since her 2006 conviction, she hasn't voted. In fact, she said, she's never voted.
"When I was an active addict and committing crimes, I had no idea how much my life could be impacted by the decisions lawmakers were making," she said. "I didn't care to be part of that process. I was so uneducated."
After pleading guilty to her charges, LaFrance was incarcerated in state prison until her release in 2010. She's since earned a degree from Minnesota State University Moorhead, and she recently became a licensed addiction counselor.
She has about 1½ years of probation left before she can vote. Her husband, Brendan LaFrance, finished a term of felony probation this summer, and he'll have the chance to vote Tuesday, Nov. 8, for the first time in at least 10 years.
Brendan LaFrance, 35, is a co-owner of Skill Cutz Barber Shop in Fargo. He said he originally intended to become a nurse, but his felony drug conviction in 2006 kept him out of that profession.
He wishes there were some better options for president, but otherwise he's excited to vote. "I'm able to use my voice and just put my opinion out there in a big pool of other votes," he said.
In the meantime, his wife is waiting for her turn to vote.
"We're living in such critical times," she said. "My children are growing up in this world. Every voice is important at this point, mine included."