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Minnesota Supreme Court hears felon voting rights case

Minnesota law currently bars felons on probation, parole and supervised release from voting. The ACLU says felon disenfranchisement particularly affects Greater Minnesota, where probation lengths are on average 46% longer.

ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Supreme Court on Tuesday, Nov. 30, heard arguments in the American Civil Liberties Union's lawsuit to end voting restrictions on more than 50,000 felons on probation in the state.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit with four clients in Ramsey County District Court in October 2019 challenging the constitutionality of the state's statute barring felons from voting if they have not completed their sentences. They argue the law creates "severe racial disparities" in who can vote, and fails to rehabilitate criminals by preventing them from fully participating in society.

Judges at the district level and on the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled against the ACLU, leading the group to appeal the case to the state Supreme Court in July.

During oral arguments Tuesday, Angela Behrens, an assistant state attorney general representing Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, said both Simon and the ACLU would be on the same side of the issue if it were a matter of legislation. Simon has publicly voiced support for restoring felon voting rights.

However, Behrens argued, the statute itself is not directly responsible for racial disparities in voter disenfranchisement. Furthermore, the law actually expands the rights of felons under the state constitution, she told the justices.

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"The statute doesn't disenfranchise anyone," Behrens told the justices, arguing. "It may not (restore rights) as early as some people like, but the constitution is what imposes the disenfranchisement — the legislature didn't add anything to what the constitution imposes."

Minnesota law currently bans felons from voting until they have completed their entire sentence, including parole, supervised release and probation. The state Constitution bans felons from voting, but the Legislature created a new statute in 1963 allowing felons to vote after completing their sentences.

The ACLU has long advocated in the Minnesota Legislature for reform of the state's rules on felons voting, but lawmakers never succeeded in repeated efforts to revise the statute.

Disenfranchisement disparities

Around 53,000 Minnesotans are barred from voting due to their felon status, according to the ACLU, and research has shown the state's ethnic and racial minority groups are disproportionately affected.

When the ACLU filed its lawsuit in 2019, the Minnesota Justice Research Center said 9.2% of Native Americans were disenfranchised in the state, followed by Black Minnesotans at 5.9%, according to Forum News Service archives. Just over 1% of white Minnesotans were unable to vote.

The center's research suggested ending the state's ban on felons voting could lower the number of disenfranchised Native American voters to 2%, Blacks to 1.5% and whites to 0.1%.

The ACLU says felon disenfranchisement particularly affects Greater Minnesota, where probation lengths are on average 46% longer.

At a news conference immediately following arguments in court, plaintiffs and representatives from the ACLU reiterated their key points and expressed optimism about their case.

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"The tide of history is overwhelmingly behind re-enfranchisement," said Craig Coleman, a pro bono attorney on the case who presented the ACLU's arguments in the state Supreme Court. "We are confident the relief we're asking from Minnesota is squarely within ... what is accepted."

"There is no purpose served by felon disenfranchisement, in fact, it undermines the legislature's stated interest in rehabilitation," he later added.

Elizer Darris, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who served 17 years in prison for second-degree homicide and later became co-director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund, said he won't be able to vote until 2025 even though he is law-abiding and active in his community.

"I pay taxes, I abide by laws, regulations rules, restrictions, guidelines, whatever you may think of -- I abide by all of them," he said at the news conference. "Yet I am still not afforded the fundamental right to vote."

Jen Schroeder, a plaintiff in the case serving a 40-year probation sentence for a drug possession charge, said she will not be able to vote until she is 71.

"I should have the right to vote for candidates that will make policy changes to help me be successful," said Schroeder, who became a drug and alcohol addiction counselor. "Addiction is a symptom of the disparities in our society and should not be punished more by disenfranchisement."

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi represents one of many groups supporting the case and has filed a brief in the case arguing in favor of the ACLU's side.

At the Tuesday news conference, Choi said allowing felons still on probation to vote serves a vital role in the rehabilitative process for former criminals.

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"We have a criminal justice system that doesn't stop punishing people," he said. "We have way too many collateral consequences, one of which is the right to vote, a fundamental right that every human being, every American should have."

Follow Alex Derosier on Twitter @xanderosier or email aderosier@forumcomm.com .

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