Minnesota restores voting rights to 50,000 felons on probation
Felons in Minnesota could not vote until they have completed their parole or probation and paid fines related to their sentence.
ST. PAUL — More than 50,000 Minnesotans convicted of felonies who are on supervised release will have their voting rights restored under a bill signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz on Friday, March 3.
Under previous law, felons in Minnesota could not vote until they completed their parole or probation and paid fines related to their sentence. The state Constitution bans felons from voting until “restored to civil rights," and a 1963 law defined that as the end of incarceration.
Opponents of the law argued disenfranchised people convicted of crimes and prevented them from fully reintegrating into society.
"We are a country of second chances. We're a country of welcoming folks back in, and the idea of not allowing those voices to have a say in the very governing of the communities they live in is simply unacceptable," Walz said ahead of signing the bill.
For years, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have been pushing to restore rights upon release from prison. Attorney General Keith Ellison introduced a bill to restore felon voting rights as a state lawmaker 20 years ago.
Jen Schroeder, a plaintiff in an unsuccessful 2019 lawsuit to overturn the law, said at the bill signing that the ban deprived a voice for thousands of contributing members of society.
"Thanks to this law, that changes today," she said. "The voices of those who struggle will no longer be silenced. Now I'm calling on Minnesotans who are affected by this law to make their voices heard."
Schroeder, who is serving a 40-year probation sentence for a drug possession charge and is now an addiction counselor, would not be able to vote until she is 71 under the previous law.
Opponents also say the law disproportionately affects Black Minnesotans and Native Americans. When Schroeder, the ACLU and others filed their 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%. 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 also said felon disenfranchisement particularly affects Greater Minnesota, where probation lengths are on average 46% longer.
Last month, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the felon voting ban. Justices acknowledged the disparate impact but ruled the law was still constitutional, sending the issue back to the Legislature.
“There may be many compelling reasons why society should not permanently prohibit — or perhaps prohibit at all — persons convicted of a felony from voting,” Justice Barry Thissen said in his opinion. “But the people of Minnesota made the choice to establish a constitutional baseline that persons convicted of a felony are not entitled or permitted to vote.”
Just a week after that decision, the Minnesota Senate passed a bill to restore felon voting rights, sending it to the governor. The House had acted on the legislation earlier in the month. Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers say expanding access to voting is one of their top priorities this session.
Secretary of State Steve Simon’s office defended the law against the challenge, but he supported legislative efforts to change it.
Minnesota was one of 16 states, including South Dakota and Wisconsin, that only allow people with felony convictions to vote upon 100% completion of their sentence. North Dakota does not allow people in prison to vote, but does not have any other restrictions after release. Twenty-one states automatically restore voting rights upon release, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Washington, D.C., Maine and Vermont allow everyone to vote, including incarcerated people.
In a statement, ACLU Minnesota Executive Director Deepinder Mayell applauded the new law.
“The goal of the criminal legal system is supposed to be rehabilitation, redemption and helping people rejoin their communities," he said. "While there is still much work to be done, this new law brings us one step closer to achieving this goal by giving people a voice and a vote in their own futures.”
This story was updated at 3:57 p.m. March 3 to include quotes from Gov. Tim Walz and the ACLU and additional background about the legislation. It was originally posted at 12:24 p.m. March 3.
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