The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Monday against Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon in an effort to restore the right to vote to convicted felons who have been released from prison.
Minnesota is currently one of 22 states that revokes voting rights for felons during incarceration and for any period of parole or probation. A number of other states restore voting rights immediately upon release from prison, while felons in Maine and Vermont never lose the right to vote.
The lawsuit was filed in Ramsey County District Court on behalf of four Minnesotans who have been denied the right to vote because of felony convictions. The suit asks the court to declare the state law denying felons the right to vote as a violation of the state constitution.
The suit argues that “no legitimate or rational government interest is served by refusing to restore the right to vote until discharge.”
“In many instances, Minnesota citizens who have been convicted of a felony never see the inside of a prison, but are placed on extremely long periods of probation or supervised release that can last for decades,” the lawsuit adds. “Consequently, these citizens live, work, marry, have kids, send their kids to school, play, shop, pay taxes, volunteer, worship and otherwise participate in Minnesota communities for years while being denied the right to vote.”
The lawsuit claims that an estimated 52,336 Minnesotans are unable to vote because of past felony convictions.
“In Minnesota, people of color and indigenous people are disproportionately affected by felony disenfranchisement due to significant racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” the suit argues, saying current laws are a violation of due process rights.
“When the state has already found that individuals previously convicted of a felony are fit to live among their fellow citizens, continuing to withhold access to the franchise is arbitrary and unjustified. Depriving such individuals of the right to vote is not tailored to achieve any rational, reasonable, or compelling government interest,” the lawsuit further states.
The lawsuit asks the court to declare that all people convicted of a felony who live in the community “possess the fundamental right to vote and shall have their right to vote restored.” It asks the court to order Simon to “immediately and permanently” take steps to restore voting rights to felons.
ACLU of Minnesota staff attorney David McKinney said in a press release that the “criminal justice system is supposed to be about reform, redemption, and reintegration into society.”
“Denying people the vote flies in the face of these goals while violating a fundamental right,” he said.
Craig Coleman, a partner with Faegre Baker Daniels, is working as a pro-bono co-counsel on the case and said Monday that the state “has never articulated any justification for disenfranchising citizens who live in our communities following a felony conviction, and none exists.”
“The exclusion of these citizens from the political process is fundamentally wrong, undemocratic, and corrosive to constitutional governance,” he added.
One of the plaintiffs, Jen Schroeder, could spend 40 years on probation and wouldn’t be able to vote until she is 71 if the laws aren’t changed.
“I am proud that I have turned my life around,” she said Monday. “I am dedicated to making a difference in the lives of others. I should have the right to vote for the person who I think will make policy changes that will enable me to be successful. There’s absolutely no reason that anyone who’s served their time should be stripped of their right to participate in our democracy.”
Simon hasn’t commented on the lawsuit because his office doesn’t comment on pending litigation, but he made felony voting rights a priority during the most recent legislative session. Simon announced his “Investing in Democracy” agenda during a January press conference and expressed his support for “restoring the right to vote at the end of a prison term.”
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