The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota is suing the state to restore voting rights for people with felonies who have served their prison time or who received probation instead of incarceration.

The ACLU filed the suit Monday against Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon on behalf of four people who have been convicted of a felony: Jennifer Schroeder, Elizer Darris, Christopher Jecevicus-Varner and Tierre Caldwell.

The organization, an attorney for the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels, which is working on the case pro bono, and three of the four plaintiffs said at a news conference that the state's current practice treats more than 52,000 Minnesotans as second-class citizens even though they live and work in the community, pay taxes and raise families.

"Everybody deserves a real second chance," Darris said. "The number of people barred from voting is appalling. We must do better."

The suit comes after a "Restore the Vote" effort in the Minnesota Legislature failed this session and as the issue continues to gain traction across the country.

"Denying someone the right to vote should never be used as a means of punishment," said David McKinney, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Minnesota.

According to the lawsuit, filed in Ramsey County District Court, the state Constitution gives all Minnesotans the right to vote, including felons after their civil rights have been restored. But state law restores the right to vote for felons only by court order or the completion of a sentence, including post-incarceration obligations.

The suit accuses state law of violating the state Constitution, and seeks to restore voting rights for people who are convicted of a felony but are actively serving probation, and for people who received probation instead of prison or jail time.

"The current system denies Minnesota citizens the fundamental right to vote with no valid justification," the suit said. "Indeed, it ignores the criminal justice system's interest in reformation, redemption, and reintegration. It ignores the role of voting as a fundamental right."

The suit said such practices also disproportionately impact communities of color. About 70% of people affected by the law live outside of Hennepin and Ramsey counties, and the impact is greater in outstate Minnesota because probation terms beyond the metro are an average of 46 percent longer, according to an ACLU news release.

Schroeder, 37, who was convicted of drug possession, said she is on probation for 40 years after serving a year in a county jail for her offense. She won't be eligible to vote again until she is 71.

"I'm proud that I've turned my life around, I rebuilt my life from nothing," said Schroeder, who now works as a drug counselor. "Voting is a civil right. Every Minnesotan should have a voice and a vote."

The suit is asking a judge to, in part:

• Declare that state law denying felons' right to vote violates the state Constitution.

• Order that felons released or excused from incarceration are allowed to vote.

• Order the secretary of state to take immediate and permanent action to allow such felons the right to vote.

While Simon has previously advocated for broadening felon voting rights, as has Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, the ACLU said it expected both to defend the state law in the face of Monday's lawsuit.

"I just sense there is a real critical mass now around this issue, and it's been a long time coming," Simon said earlier this year on the topic of restoring voting rights. "This is, to me, a basic fairness issue. It is a civil rights issue."

Ellison introduced a voter restoration bill as a state lawmaker in 2006 and has said felons should not be denied the right to vote.

A spokesman for Simon's office said he doesn't comment on pending litigation. Ellison said Monday that while he supports voter restoration, his duty is to defend Minnesota's laws.

"Living with dignity and respect means being able to participate fully in the life of your community, and voting is one of the most powerful ways you can do that," Ellison said. "I have argued for a long time that people who are no longer incarcerated but are on parole or probation should be able to vote. … As attorney general, however, my role is to defend the constitutionality of Minnesota's duly enacted laws. I will do that in this case."

Gov. Tim Walz and First Lady Gwen Walz have also advocated for restoring voter rights.

"I certainly welcome the courts to make a decision on it, but I've been a strong advocate [for legislation]," the governor said. "It doesn't make any sense for us to make it difficult for people to come out of prison.

"If the ACLU's looking at that, I certainly welcome the courts to take a look at it because I do think that right, to restore that vote, is an important one."

Staff writer Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708