The state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that barring felons from voting doesn’t violate the constitution, a long-awaited decision that arrived just as the DFL-controlled Legislature is preparing to change the law.
DFLers are moving to restore voting rights to felons as soon as they’re no longer incarcerated. Under current law, those released from jail or prison must wait until they’re off probation and have paid their fines to get their voting rights back.
Supporters say that disenfranchising the roughly 50,000 felons on parole or probation violates the core United States principle of no taxation without representation. They argue that many of the formerly incarcerated hold jobs, pay taxes, and want to be involved in their communities and that disenfranchisement of felons is an enduring systemic racial disparity.
The felon voting case had been pending at the state Supreme Court for an extraordinarily long time. The court heard oral arguments in December 2021 on the lawsuit seeking to restore the voting rights of felons after the lower courts rejected it.
Wednesday’s decision written by Justice Paul Thissen affirmed the lower courts’ actions. The ruling wasn’t unanimous. Chief Justice Laurie Gildea and G. Barry Anderson concurred, but wrote a separate opinion. Justice Natalie Hudson wrote a dissent.
Thissen wrote that every member of the court agrees that the right to vote is fundamental. “But the people of Minnesota have the power to define in the constitution who can and cannot vote—who has the right to vote,” he wrote in an opinion also signed by Justices Margaret Chutich, Anne McKeig, and Gordon Moore.
The opinion recognized the “troubling consequences, including the disparate racial impacts” of the current law, but pointed out that the Legislature has the power to change the law to address the public policy concerns raised in the lawsuit.
“We should all take care that persons not be deprived of the ability to participate in the political process out of fear of our fellow citizens,” Thissen wrote.
In her dissent, Hudson, the state’s only sitting Black justice, said the law is unconstitutional because it disenfranchises Black and Native American voters at much higher rates. She included graphs detailing how the law impacts racial minorities, who are incarcerated at higher rates than white Minnesotans.
“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,” Hudson wrote. “We are better than this.”
She noted there is broad consensus that re-enfranchisement of felons “is critical for rehabilitation, in part, because voting is the ultimate act of civic engagement.”
Finally, Hudson quoted the late Justice Rosalie Wahl’s writing in a previous decision. “There comes a time when we cannot and must not close our eyes when presented with evidence that certain laws, regardless of the purpose for which they were enacted, discriminate unfairly on the basis of race,” Hudson wrote.
A week ago at a Capitol news conference, Attorney General Keith Ellison and Secretary of State Steve Simon, both longtime supporters of the restoration, said it’s within the Legislature’s authority to change the law. The Minnesota House already passed a bill 71-59 to do just that.
Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic and President Bobby Joe Champion, both Minneapolis DFLers, say the Senate is ready to go. “We in the Senate are prepared to take swift action to debate and pass this important legislation to allow all of our voices to be heard when it comes to voting,” Champion said in a statement.
Governor Tim Walz has indicated he will sign what’s known as “Restore the Vote” legislation.
Republicans overwhelmingly oppose the proposal, arguing that those who commit crimes, especially felonies, must face penalties.
The Minnesota and National American Civil Liberties Union filed the initial lawsuit in 2019 against Simon’s office on behalf of Jennifer Schroeder and Elizer Darris.
Schroeder was convicted of a first-degree sale of a controlled substance. The court stayed her sentence but put her on probation for 40 years. She did not appeal the sentence and under current law won’t be eligible to vote until 2053.
The court noted that since Schroeder’s conviction, she has earned a degree and works as an addiction counselor, pays taxes and is active in her church and community.
Darris was convicted of second-degree intentional murder. He was released from prison in 2016. He has worked as an organizer at the American Civil Liberties Union, mentored youth and volunteered in the community, the court said. Darris will remain on probation until 2025 so he cannot vote, the court said.
States vary widely in their approaches to voting rights for felons. In Maine, Vermont, and the District of Columbia, felons never lose the right to vote even while incarcerated. In 21 states, felons can’t vote while locked up, but they regain the right immediately on release, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In 16 states, including Minnesota, felons lose their voting rights while locked up and during their parole or probation and often until they’ve paid fines or restitution. In 11 states, felons lose their voting right indefinitely for certain crimes or require a governor’s pardon for the right to be restored, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported.