Jen is a client in the ACLU of Minnesota's lawsuit against the Minnesota Secretary of State that seeks to restore voting rights to people on felony probation or supervision. Her fight for the right to vote has made her a vocal and powerful advocate for others who are disenfranchised. This is Jen's story in her own words:
My story starts out like so many other addicts. I come from a broken home. Addiction became part of my life very early on. I ended up bouncing around from foster home to foster home, and group home to group home.
No one ever stepped in to be a role model. I felt like I was disposable.
Addiction slowly consumed me until it was the only thing I knew. It is the worst hell, to be inside your own head and watch your life fall apart, screaming at yourself to stop. Looking back, it is unbelievable that I wasted 25 years of my life in addiction.
My rock bottom was the day my newborn baby girl was taken from me. Then I got pulled over for driving without a license. I was charged with possession. It was almost a relief. I was so exhausted and sick of the life I was living.
I was sentenced to 365 days in a county jail, and 40 years of probation.
Even though I exceeded every expectation the court laid out for me, the judge pulled the rug out from under my feet and told me she was terminating my parental rights. I was told if I did not sign the open adoption agreement, I would never see her again. Any future children would be taken from me, too. I watched everything I had worked so hard for, slip away.
But this time, I did not turn to drugs. I decided that if I really wanted my daughter to know how much I loved her, I could not give up. I rebuilt my life from nothing. I had no license, no car, and no credit. I had never had a checking account.
I enrolled in college. I took out student loans. And I became the first person in my family to graduate. I earned a degree in addiction counseling. I am now a counselor at Wayside Recovery Center, where I started my own recovery journey. I am determined to help people still suffering from addiction.
But the hard part isn’t over yet. I will spend 40 years on probation. Under current Minnesota law, I cannot vote until I am 71 years old.
I’ve only been able to vote once so far, in the Gore-Bush election. I voted the second I turned 18. I follow politics more than most people I know. I have opinions on what I think is right for the United States. I feel very silenced.
I should have the right to vote for the person who I think will make policy changes that will enable me to be successful. There’s absolutely no reason that anyone who’s served their time should be stripped of their right to participate in our democracy.
The hell an addict goes through is punishment enough. Addiction is not just a disease, it’s a symptom of something larger that’s wrong in our society. Topping it with overly harsh sentences and stripping people of their right to vote does not help recovering addicts or our communities.
I am proud that I have turned my life around. I volunteer, I have a job, I pay taxes, and I’m active in my church. I am dedicated to making a difference in the lives of others.
But when do you reach the point where what you’re doing now – and who you have become – is enough?
When do you get to be considered a full-fledged member of society again? When do you get to vote?
Voting is a civil right. That’s why I’m here today: Every Minnesotan should have a voice and a vote. And the voices of the people struggling the most, should be heard the loudest.