Minnesota judge upholds new law speeding up voting rights restoration

People hold signs in support of voting rights
Voting rights supporters hold signs in support of bill HS28, which seeks to restore voting rights to previously incarcerated residents, during press conference at the Minnesota State Capitol on Feb. 21. It passed during the 2023 legislative session but has been challenged since.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Updated: 6:26 p.m.

An Anoka County judge has thrown out a lawsuit that challenged the quicker restoration of voting rights to Minnesotans convicted of felonies.

Judge Thomas Lehmann’s 11-page order dated Wednesday dismissed the case on multiple grounds. It was an attempt to scuttle a new law approved this year and that allowed some previously ineligible voters to cast ballots in the municipal elections.

In February, the DFL-led Legislature sped up the restoration of voting rights. People with felony convictions were allowed to vote so long as they are not in prison to vote. Before the change, they had to finish supervised release and probation as well.

The Minnesota Voters Alliance, a conservative group, argued that Minnesota's constitution requires that people convicted of felonies serve all parts of their sentence before their civil rights — including voting rights — are restored. 

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Voting rights advocates said the lawsuit was an attempt to sow confusion among the newly enfranchised. 

Lehmann ruled that the plaintiffs do not have legal standing to sue, and they failed to prove that lawmakers acted outside their authority. 

“The major premise of this argument is fundamentally flawed,” the judge wrote in his order. He cited a 2023 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that deferred to the Legislature to determine when voting rights were renewed.

The voters alliance plans to appeal. A lawyer for the group, James Dickey, said it would try to skip one appellate court along the way.

“We are disappointed with the Court’s decision, but we intend to appeal as soon as possible and seek accelerated review from the Minnesota Supreme Court,” said UMLC Senior Counsel James Dickey. “We think this is an important issue of constitutional interpretation, and the people of Minnesota deserve to know what their constitution means before the 2024 election.”

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison says he is happy the efforts were rejected.

“I am extremely pleased that yet another effort to undermine the voting rights of Minnesotans has been soundly rejected,” he said in a statement. “The legislature has the ability to decide when voting rights are restored to Minnesotans, and today’s ruling reaffirms that right and reaffirms the constitutionality of the Restore the Vote Act.”

Barring a successful appeal, the law would be firmly in place heading into a 2024 election when the presidency, a U.S. Senate seat, all 134 state House seats and more are on the line.