Minn. Appeals court deals setback to voting restoration push

A voting booth with a sign
A reminder of Minnesota's mask mandate awaits voters at the Clay County Courthouse in Moorhead, Minn. The Minnesota Court of Appeals turned away a legal bid Monday to more quickly restore the voting rights of past felons.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News 2020

Minnesota’s laws that bar felons from voting until after fully discharging their sentence, including probation, have been upheld as constitutional by the state Court of Appeals.

But Monday’s outcome won’t end the fight in the courts or at the Capitol. The people and groups who brought the case plan to seek Minnesota Supreme Court review.

The legal challenge was brought by several people convicted of felonies, some of whom spent time behind bars. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and other pro bono counsel, they sued to overturn a system that can leave past felons without the ability to vote even decades after they’re back in the community.

But this week’s decision leaves intact a lower court order

The unanimous three-judge panel decided that the state’s constitution and laws are clear that probation counts as part of a sentence. Judge Matthew Johnson said in the written opinion that the court was unwilling to go beyond what’s spelled out.

“Appellants have not identified any law in the history of Minnesota that restored a felon’s civil rights automatically upon release from incarceration,” Johnson wrote. “To the contrary, it appears that, in the territorial era and for more than a century thereafter, the civil rights of felons were restored only by executive or legislative action, not merely by a felon’s release from confinement.”

Bills to take probation out of the equation have been hung up for years in the Legislature. There are no indications that the dynamic will change before the next election.

ACLU-MN staff attorney David McKinney said the legal challenge will go on.

“Felony disenfranchisement is one of the enduring and systemic racial disparities in our criminal justice system. Depriving people of their right to vote further entrenches these disparities,” he said in a written statement. We will keep fighting and plan to seek review of this ruling in the Minnesota Supreme Court.”

The state Supreme Court doesn’t hear every case sent its way, and it will take months before the court makes an initial determination here.

The defendant in the case, DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon, had moved to dismiss the case. He agreed with the legal outcome but said he sympathizes with the underlying cause.

“Long story short is I’ve made no secret of my strong view that we ought to restore the right to vote for people who have left prison behind,” Simon said in an interview Tuesday. “That’s my view. I think it should be done legislatively.”

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.