ACLU sues Minnesota over voting rights for felons

The debate over felon voting rights in Minnesota has moved from the Capitol to the courthouse.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Monday challenging the constitutionality of the state’s voting restrictions on felons serving probation.

Convicted felons are prohibited from voting while they are incarcerated. But in Minnesota, the restriction still applies to felons who have completed jail time and are on supervised probation. Even felons who never spent any time behind bars are prohibited from voting if they are on probation.

“The number of people barred from voting is appalling. It’s appalling, and we must do better,” said Elizer Darris, one of four named plaintiffs. The 35-year-old served 17 years in prison for 2nd degree homicide. He isn’t eligible to vote until 2025.

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Plaintiff Jennifer Schroeder, a drug and alcohol counselor, said she served a year in prison and was sentenced to 40 years of probation. She said she has turned her life around but won’t be eligible to vote until age 71.

“There’s absolutely no reason why somebody who has served their time shouldn’t be able to participate in our democracy, ” she said.

Schroeder and other felon voting rights advocates have spent time at the Capitol lobbying for changes. And, ironically, supporters of the so-called Restore the Vote effort have included Secretary of State Steve Simon and Attorney General Keith Ellison, who must now defend the current system in court.

An estimated 52,000 Minnesotans could be eligible for restoration of voting rights if the lawsuit succeeds, said David McKinney, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Minnesota.

“Denying someone the right to vote should never be used as the means of punishment, but rather means for reintegration,” McKinney said. “People who vote are more connected to their community and less likely to reoffend.”

Lawmakers who support the felon voting issue are expected to renew their efforts next session, even as the lawsuit begins moving through the courts. Craig Coleman, of the Faegre Baker Daniels law firm and a pro bono co-counsel in the lawsuit, said the aim is to restore felon voting rights one way or another.

“If the Legislature takes this occasion to fix the problem that would be welcomed. But if they don’t, that’s the role of courts, and we think we’ll ultimately prevail,” he said.

A spokesman for Simon said the office would not comment on pending litigation but added that Simon’s position on restoring felon voting rights is well established.