A Reflection at the End of the Session

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This post was written by JCA Executive Director Vic Rosenthal on the evening of Sunday, May 17th, after learning that Voter Pre-Registration, the campaign our Seeds of Justice Youth Fellows had led this year, was being eliminated from the final elections omnibus bill and would not be adopted this year.

The Torah commands us to welcome the stranger, for we were strangers in Egypt. Hubert Humphrey said the moral test of government is how it cares for the children, the elderly, and the weakest members of our society. And while Jewish Community Action members take these messages to heart, it doesn’t seem like the 2015 legislature, especially leadership, is with us. I’m not talking about the larger battles over things like taxes, Minnesota Care, transportation funding, or education. This session, Jewish Community Action was involved in three bills: one that would increase civic engagement by allow teens to pre-register to vote, one for those working to regain voting rights after serving their sentences and rejoining their communities, and one to make roads safer by expanding legal access to all drivers. On each of these measure, the legislature failed to act.

Today, one of our Seeds of Justice youth fellows spoke in the elections conference committee, asking that voter pre-registration for 17 year olds be included in the omnibus bill. He was told - we were told - that it was too controversial. Despite the leadership of high school students, who took on and led a statewide campaign with Jewish Community Action, the elections conference committee decided that making it easier for young people to register, a measure that would ultimately improve voter turnout among younger voters, was too controversial in 2015. How can improving access to democracy ever be controversial? How can engaging young people in this process be controversial?

And the House Judiciary conference committee also decided not to include Restore the Vote in its final bill. The same negotiations that added silencers to guns in Minnesota took away legislation that would allow former felons to vote, to participate fully in society upon release from prison and return to their communities.  We want people to become re-integrated into our community, we want to give them the right to vote, as many other states before us have done. Rather than support re-entry in a positive way, the legislature decided on continued marginalization.

For many years now, the Latino community has been leading the effort to make our roads safer by supporting legislation to allow members of their community to secure drivers’ licenses and purchase insurance. This is legislation supported by organized labor, the business community, law enforcement and the faith community, but that was not enough for the legislature. We want to increase employment, build our economy and support families; we work for legislation that would help accomplish these objectives, and still we wait.

This would be the time when some would become cynical and ask, reasonably, “What’s the point?” After all, this year the legislature seemed to hear only those with money and political influence, and ignored the voices youth, people of color, and those living on the margins. It would be easy to blame one party or the other, but in reality, there was a lack of leadership on both sides. Each bill had significant bi-partisan support but still could not overcome the opposition of the leadership, especially in the House.

But I can’t ask, “What’s the point?” because I know the answer. After working on legislation for more than 25 years in Minnesota, I refuse to succumb to cynicism and I refuse to stop working for social change. This session, I watched our youth fellows lead their first campaign. They took an issue, voter pre-registration for 16 year olds, and built broad, bi-partisan support. They organized, they testified, they mobilized their peers. That’s the point, and I can’t be cynical. At the end of a hard session, I am honored to have worked in broad-based coalitions on each of these bills, and I’m humbled by the strong spirit and faith I see in our partners. We will continue to organize and become more powerful, and I know we will prevail. Our vision for Minnesota is one of justice and compassion, with more of us involved in the decisions that affect us, more of us supporting our economy and building a more equitable state. We may not have prevailed this session, but we will be back stronger than ever and will pass these and other bills that will make Minnesota a more just place to live.




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