Access to voting for Minnesotans on felony probation sentences is still being litigated in the state’s courts amid an unsuccessful yearslong push by voting rights advocates at the Legislature.
Last year, a group of Minnesotans filed a lawsuit in Ramsey County District Court that challenged the constitutionality of a state law that barred them from voting until they completed their probation terms — which, for one woman, spanned several decades.
With support from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota, the lawsuit was brought following legislative inaction. The case is now before the Minnesota Court of Appeals after a Ramsey County judge dismissed the initial complaint.
The ACLU is arguing that the state law that disenfranchises felons on probation “violates Minnesota’s constitutional guarantee of equal protection because it infringes upon their fundamental right to vote, is based upon an arbitrary classification, and disproportionately impacts persons of color.”
Minnesota is one of 29 states that disenfranchise people convicted of felonies while they serve out their probation, parole or supervised release terms. The policy affects an estimated 55,000 Minnesotans on probation or supervised release.
Calls to restore voting rights once Minnesotans leave incarceration have grown in recent legislative sessions, with support ranging from far-left progressives to conservative libertarians.
Jennifer Schroeder, a 38-year-old St. Paul woman who is serving a 40-year probation sentence for a drug offense, became one of the faces of the movement after speaking out to share her story.
Attorney General Keith Ellison has spoken in support of allowing prisoners to vote, even as his office represents Secretary of State Steve Simon as the defendant in the lawsuit. Simon too supports felon voting rights, but in court is arguing that anyone convicted of a felony does not have a “fundamental right” to vote based on the “clear language” of the Minnesota Constitution.
Two states and the District of Columbia do not restrict voting rights for any felons, even those in prison.
Last month, attorneys general for 14 states and the District of Columbia intervened in the ACLU’s appeal to file a friend of the court brief arguing in support of their case. Proponents argue that voting rights are a vital step toward reintegrating former felons as productive members of society.
When Ramsey County Judge Laura Nelson dismissed the initial case last year, she acknowledged that plaintiffs made “many compelling policy arguments against felony disenfranchisement and the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on communities of color in Minnesota.” But, she added, “this is an issue to be addressed by the Legislature.”
Should the state’s appellate courts agree with Nelson, the ongoing effort will slingshot back to the State Capitol, where momentum has been growing but policy proposals remain stalled.