Minn. Supreme Court upholds laws preventing felons on probation from voting
Majority of justices found no evidence that the drafters of the Constitution intended to restore voting rights upon a felon’s release from prison
By Josh Verges
ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to restore voting rights to felons on probation, writing that the relevant state laws may disproportionately harm people of color but are not unconstitutional.
At the same time, the justices all but invited state lawmakers to change the law, which appears likely to happen before this legislative session ends.
The plaintiffs in a 2019 lawsuit challenged a state statute that says felons lose their right to vote until they’ve been “discharged,” which has been interpreted to mean they’ve been completed not only their jail or prison terms but also any probation or supervised release and paid any fines.
They argued that under the Minnesota Constitution, their release from prison should immediately restore their right to vote.
With only Associate Justice Natalie Hudson dissenting Wednesday, the Supreme Court affirmed decisions by a Ramsey County District Court judge and state appellate court panel to dismiss the case.
They found that the statutory language, which says felons lose their right to vote “unless restored to civil rights” is “straightforward.” And they found no evidence that the drafters of the Constitution intended to restore voting rights upon a felon’s release from prison.
Equal protection claim
A majority of justices also rejected the argument that because Blacks and Native Americans disproportionately lose their right to vote because of felony convictions, the statute violates the state Constitution’s equal protection clause.
That fact is a “deeply disturbing reality in Minnesota,” Associate Justice Paul Thissen wrote, but the plaintiffs offered no evidence that the statutory mechanism for restoring voting rights favors certain races over others.
Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea wrote a concurrence that reached some of the same conclusions as Thissen while separating herself from his finding on equal protection, writing that “it relies on an argument that was not raised by the parties.”
Hudson in her dissent found the statute does violate the equal protection clause.
That law, she wrote, “acts as a gatekeeper to the franchise, determining who will have a voice in the democratic process and who will continue to be relegated to political marginalization. … Sanctioning such discrimination is particularly perverse in the voting rights context because it inhibits the ability of the politically powerless to redress discrimination through ordinary political means, further marginalizing those seeking to reenter society.”
Bill would restore voting rights
The controversy affects more than 50,000 Minnesotans, including lead plaintiff Jennifer Schroeder, who was sentenced to 40 years of probation and a stayed prison term for selling drugs. She’s now an addiction counselor and active in her community and church, but she can’t vote until 2053.
The DFL for years has tried to enable felons to vote while on probation or parole, and that legislation seems likely to become law this session given the DFL’s control of the House and Senate and Gov. Tim Walz’s support.
A bill that passed the House earlier this month on a party line vote now awaits action in the Senate.
The Supreme Court’s ruling should not affect the pending legislation.
Thissen concluded his opinion by writing that although the statute “passes constitutional muster, we recognize the troubling consequences, including the disparate racial impacts, flowing from the disenfranchisement of persons convicted of a felony. The Legislature retains the power to respond to those consequences.”
Secretary of State Steve Simon prevailed in the case but wants to see the law changed.
“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,” he said in a news release. “This restoration of voting rights is good for all of us, because we know that when people have a sense of ownership in their community they are far less likely to commit another crime.”
Fifteen other states have laws similar to Minnesota’s, while 21 states restore voting rights upon release from incarceration. Felons in Maine, Vermont and the District of Columbia never lose their right to vote.