Minnesota Supreme Court upholds felon voting ban
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.
ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday, Feb. 15, upheld a ban on voting for felons who have been released from prison but are still serving parole or probation.
The decision comes more than a year after the American Civil Liberties Union argued the case before the Supreme Court in the hopes of restoring voting rights to nearly 50,000 felons on probation in the state. A group including people serving probation for felony convictions brought the lawsuit in 2019.
In a 75-page ruling released Wednesday , most justices on the court did not agree that the ban violated the Constitution, despite its disproportionate impact on Black Minnesotans and Native Americans. They said restoring the rights of felons is a task for the Legislature.
“There may be many compelling reasons why society should not permanently prohibit — or perhaps prohibit at all — persons convicted of a felony from voting,” Justice Barry Thissen said in his opinion. “But the people of Minnesota made the choice to establish a constitutional baseline that persons convicted of a felony are not entitled or permitted to vote.”
Now that the court has ruled the restriction does not violate the Constitution, the question goes to the Legislature, where Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers are advancing a bill to allow people who have been released from custody to vote.
The House passed a bill in early February and companion legislation is moving through the Senate.
“We are prepared to pass my legislation that would restore voting rights to those community members who are no longer incarcerated,” said Senate President Bobby Joe Champion, a Minneapolis DFLer who is carrying a felon voting rights bill in the Senate.
Gov. Tim Walz has expressed support for restoring felon voting rights.
Minnesota law currently bans felons from voting until they have completed their entire sentence, including parole, supervised release and probation. The state Constitution bans felons from voting until “restored to civil rights.” The Legislature created a new statute in 1963 allowing felons to vote after completing their sentences.
Arguments before the Supreme Court took place in December 2021. The court ruled 6-1 in favor of upholding the felon voting ban, though Justice Barry Anderson wrote a concurring opinion separate from Thissen’s and was joined by Chief Lorie Justice Gildea.
In her dissent, Justice Natalie Hudson wrote that the law disproportionately affects Black and Native state residents, something that a previous case she cited found “cries out” for closer scrutiny because it could result in the law being applied unequally.
“In ignoring that cry, the court effectively sanctions a pernicious statutory racial classification regime that maintains the disenfranchisement of large swaths of Minnesota’s communities of color, thereby diminishing their political power and influence in this state,” she wrote. “We are better than this.”
When the lawsuit was filed in 2019, the Minnesota Justice Research Center said 9.2% of Native Americans were disenfranchised in the state, followed by Black Minnesotans at 5.9%, according to Forum News Service archives. Just over 1% of white Minnesotans were unable to vote.
The center’s research suggested ending the state’s ban on felons voting could lower the number of disenfranchised Native American voters to 2%, Blacks to 1.5% and whites to 0.1%.
The ACLU in the past has said felon disenfranchisement particularly affects greater Minnesota, where probation lengths are on average 46% longer.
Plaintiffs Elizer Darris and Jen Schroeder spoke on the case at an ACLU of Minnesota news conference Wednesday afternoon. Unless the Legislature changes the law, Schroeder, who is serving a 40-year sentence for a drug possession charge and is now an addiction counselor, will not be able to vote until she is 71.
“The court decided that I am not worthy to be a full citizen … and a full member of the society because of a past drug possession charge,” she said. “By ruling against our case, the Minnesota Supreme Court has said that what I am doing and who I am is not enough.”
Darris, who served 17 years in prison for second-degree homicide and later became co-director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund, called the justices’ decision to uphold the law despite their acknowledgment of disparities “disheartening.” Darris won’t be able to vote until 2025.
Minnesota is one of 16 states, including South Dakota and Wisconsin, that only allow 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.
Secretary of State Steve Simon’s office defended the law against the challenge, but in a statement said he supports legislative efforts to change state policy on felons voting.
“I believe that the policy is long overdue for a correction,” said Simon, the state’s top elections administrator. “If a person is deemed by a judge or jury to be worthy enough and safe enough to live in our community, then it is entirely reasonable to allow that person to have a say about who governs them.”
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This story was updated at 4:50 p.m. Feb. 15 with additional information. It was originally posted at 11:36 a.m. Feb. 15.