Judge weighs challenge to Minnesota felon voting law

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Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon (left) stands among the participants as they celebrate after completing their voter registrations during the "Restore the Vote" implementation rally at Arlington Hills Community Center in St. Paul, Minn. in June. An Anoka County District judge is weighing arguments the law violates the state's constitution.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Updated: 2:35 p.m.

A Minnesota judge is weighing whether people with felony records may vote in next week’s elections even if their full sentences aren’t complete.

Anoka County District Court Judge Thomas Lehmann heard arguments Monday in a challenge to a new state law that more quickly restores voting rights. Under it, voting eligibility kicks back in when incarceration ends, regardless of a person’s supervised release or probation status.

The Minnesota Voters Alliance, a conservative group, argues that the state constitution requires that all aspects of a person’s sentence be completed before their civil rights, including voting, are restored.

James Dickey, an attorney for the Alliance, said state lawmakers exceeded their authority, and that more steps are required before a person’s rights may be restored.

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“This particular law only restores a singular right to vote, or purports to do so. As a result, it does not satisfy the Constitution.”

Assistant Attorney General Nathan Hartshorn argued that the Legislature has “broad power” to restore the right to vote “as a single individual thing.”

“‘Restored to civil rights’ and ‘restored to all civil rights’ are different,” Hartshorn said. “And that means what the petitioners are actually asking this court to do is to amend the Minnesota Constitution to add the word ‘all.’ Obviously none of us has the authority to do that.”

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Attorney James Dickey is an attorney with the Minnesota Voters Alliance, a conservative group arguing against a new law restoring felon voting rights earlier.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

The outcome of the case could affect more than 55,000 people whose eligibility was restored with the passage of the law.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon and Anoka County election manager Tom Hunt are the defendants named in the lawsuit. The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota is seeking to intervene in the case on behalf of two people who’d served time, Jennifer Schroeder and Elizer Darris.

Darris, 39, was convicted of killing Cornelius Rodgers in 1999 and leaving his body in a ditch. A court certified Darris, who was 15 at the time of the murder, to be prosecuted as an adult and later sentenced him to life in prison. A higher court reversed Darris’ first-degree murder charge, but let stand his conviction on a lesser count of second-degree murder. A judge resentenced Darris to 25 years. He left prison in 2016 after serving two thirds of his term, and is on supervised release through early 2025.

A decade ago, Schroeder was sentenced to a year in jail and 40 years of probation for felony drug possession. She said she has since gone through treatment and works as a drug counselor. Like Darris, Schroeder has advocated for the restoration of voting rights for people who are on supervised release for felony convictions.

At the hearing, attorney Cassidy Ingram, who represents Darris and Schroeder, argued that the litigation is an attempt to disenfranchise voters and create confusion leading up to the Nov. 7 election.

“This lawsuit creates a doubt in people’s minds as to whether they’re eligible to vote, so that they simply will not vote,” Ingram said. “It has a chilling effect. Petitioners filed this lawsuit when they did in the summer and then sat and waited for the purpose of causing confusion close to the election.”

Dickey, the attorney for the Minnesota Voters Alliance, refuted Ingram’s allegations and called them an “inappropriate ad hominem attack.”

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Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Nathan Hartshorn at the Anoka County Courthouse on Monday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Lehmann did not question attorneys on either side, and noted that the briefs they submitted ahead of the hearing were thorough. He pledged to issue his opinion “in a timely fashion.”

When he rules, it’s likely that the losing side would seek a reversal from the Minnesota Court of Appeals or the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The lawsuit is one of two challenges to the new voting law. Earlier this month, Mille Lacs County Judge Matthew Quinn sentenced two people convicted on felony charges to probation with conditions prohibiting them from voting or registering to vote until they’d served their entire sentences.

Minnesota State Public Defender Bill Ward asked the Minnesota Court of Appeals to vacate Quinn’s orders and block similar actions in the future.