The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld state laws that bar individuals with felony convictions from voting until they complete their probation, putting the onus on lawmakers to decide whether voting rights should be restored if individuals are out of jail leave.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of criminal convicts who cannot vote, had argued that the state’s constitution guarantees the right to vote once a person is released from incarceration. But the majority of Supreme Court justices disagreed.
“There can be many compelling reasons why society should not permanently — or perhaps at all — ban individuals convicted of a crime from voting,” Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Thissen said in the majority opinion. But the country’s constitution does not automatically entitle people with criminal convictions to vote, Thissen added.
Supreme Court Justice Natalie Hudson was the only one who disagreed. The state constitution requires the court to review any law that “unreasonably discriminates against the people of this state,” and the court has not done so, Hudson said.
Attorneys for the ACLU expressed disappointment with the Supreme Court’s decision and said it was now urgent for the Senate to pass the bill.
David McKinney, an ACLU attorney, said the decision means more than 50,000 Minnesotans, who are disproportionately black, remain disenfranchised unless the Senate acts.
According to the majority opinion, the plaintiffs had shown that 1% of whites, 6% of blacks and 9% of Native Americans in Minnesota were barred from voting in 2018 because they had been convicted of a crime but had not been paroled. If voting rights were restored after release from prison, these percentages would drop to 0.1%, 1.5%, and 2%, respectively.
Elizer Darris, co-executive director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund, who has campaigned in the legislature and campaigned door-to-door to change the laws, said it was “beyond disheartening” that the Supreme Court recognized the racial differences, but no action taken to remedy.
Darris, who was convicted of second-degree murder and unable to vote because he is on probation until 2025, said he will not give up democracy and will continue to fight for legislation.
Democratic Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said in a statement, “If a person is deemed by a judge or jury to be worthy and safe enough to live in our community, then it is perfectly reasonable to allow that person to to have a say who governs them. This restoration of voting rights is good for all of us because we know that people who feel a sense of ownership in their community are much less likely to commit another crime.”
Efforts to “restore the vote” are progressing rapidly in the legislature. The House of Representatives passed its bill two weeks ago by a vote of 71 to 59. The Senate is awaiting its final vote on a mirror law.
“We heard from the Supreme Court that this matter requires action from the Legislature, and we are ready to pass my bill that would restore voting rights to parishioners who are no longer incarcerated,” said Senate President Bobby Joe Champion, a Minneapolis Democrat lead author of the Senate bill, said in a statement.
Among lawmakers opposing these efforts is Republican Senator Warren Limmer of Maple Grove, who serves as the lead Republican on the Senate Public Safety Committee.
“Just recently, a criminal was sentenced to just six months in prison for raping two underage girls,” Limmer said in a video posted to Facebook Tuesday is enough to restore a criminal’s constitutional rights.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states will have their voting rights restored when people with criminal convictions get out of prison. These include Republican-controlled North Dakota, Indiana, and Utah.
Other states, such as Minnesota, require a suspended and suspended sentence for restoration of voting rights. And in some states, people imprisoned for certain crimes lose their rights indefinitely after their release.
Trisha Ahmed is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that brings journalists into local newsrooms to cover undercover topics. Follow her on Twitter: @TrishaAhmed15