Voting law affecting thousands back before Minnesota Supreme Court

Elizer Darris fills out his voter registration
Elizer Darris fills out his voter registration during the Restore the Vote implementation rally at Arlington Hills Community Center in St. Paul on June 1.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News 2023

Updated 12:30 p.m.

Minnesota Supreme Court justices confronted two key questions Monday in a major voting rights case: Does the group challenging a felon re-enfranchisement law have grounds to sue and, if they do, is their argument based on the grammatical structure of the law change sufficient to upend it?

Those matters were the crux of a 75-minute oral argument session that could result in a decision before summer.

It’s the second time in recent years that the state’s highest court is examining laws that dictate when people convicted of felonies are allowed back in the voting booth.

Last year, the Legislature passed a law saying release from custody would be the trigger point for allowing voting again even if periods of probation or supervised release remain on a sentence.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Attorney James Dickey of the Minnesota Voters Alliance told justices that the Legislature was too selective when it restored voting rights rather than make a more-sweeping move to give back almost all civil rights.

“Civil rights means more than one. And the right to vote is one of the civil rights,” Dickey said.

In one of many exchanges with lawyers, justices including Margaret Chutich seemed troubled by the emphasis on “rights” in the plural between the notion only a single “right” was given back.

“It seems to me when people get out of prison, they get a lot of their rights back,” Chutich told Dickey. “They can travel more. They can move around the state, the freedom of religion, they get to go to church, freedom of association. So why don't those rights count when people do not go to prison or they come out of prison?”

The court will decide whether the law that, in one swoop restored voting rights to an estimated 55,000 people with felony convictions, can stand or if it should be struck.

The law passed after a previous Supreme Court ruling put the matter back in the Legislature’s hands. Justices declined to upend the prior setup that required all aspects of a sentence be completed first.

The conservative Minnesota Voters Alliance sued over the law last year arguing the state Legislature overstepped its authority in re-enfranchising Minnesotans who’d not fully served out their sentences.

A district court ruled against the challenge, noting it could affect voting rights of tens of thousands of Minnesotans. The group then successfully bypassed the Court of Appeals and took the case straight to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Justices peppered Dickey with questions about whether the right to vote comes with other rights inherent in it — like being able to run for elected office. They also raised questions about whether the group he represents had standing to bring the challenge.

“Doesn't the right to vote, isn't that just a bundle of independent rights in addition to the right to hold office?” Justice Karl Procaccini asked. “Voters are entitled to do what their civil rights are. They can apply to for an absentee ballot. They can register to vote. They can vote in a primary. They can vote in a special election. They can vote in a general election. They can file a petition to discontinue library service. They can petition under the Constitution to seek recall of an elected official. Those are all things that eligible board voters have the civil rights to undertake.”

Nathan Hartshorn, the attorney representing the state, argued that the Legislature has the authority to make the change. He pointed to the ruling the court handed down that said lawmakers, not the court, should decide when voting rights should be restored after someone is convicted.

“Last year, this court issued a landmark decision on voting rights. Responding to that decision less than three weeks later, the Legislature exercised the discretion that this court had just ruled it held and passed an act that re-enfranchised 55,000 Minnesotans who had felony convictions but who were back in the community,” Hartshorn said. “But now, appellants are here barely a year later to say that that's all wrong. “

Hartshorn urged the court to issue a decision quickly because early voting in Minnesota’s primary election is set to begin the final week of June. And he asked that the justices deliver a clear message to Minnesotans who weren’t sure whether they were eligible to cast a ballot.

“This case has reverberated outside of the courtroom walls,” Hartshorn said. “Intentionally or not, appellants claims have instilled fear and uncertainty and doubt in the minds of people who count on the Restore the Vote Act.”

Two men talk at a microphone
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison speaks to reporters at the Capitol on Friday, Oct. 20.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News 2023

People with felony convictions, faith leaders and other advocates spent decades trying to convince the Legislature to rewrite state law to speed up the restoration of voting rights. The DFL-led House and Senate, along with Gov. Tim Walz prioritized the measure last year after they took control at the Capitol.

Elizer Darris is a political organizer who advocated for the change since he was released from prison in 2016. Darris 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. 

Later, a higher court reversed Darris’ first-degree murder charge, but let stand the conviction on a count of second-degree murder. A judge resentenced Darris to 25 years. He is on supervised release through early 2025.

People at press conference
Elizer Darris speaks at the Capitol in St. Paul on Nov. 30, 2021.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

After years of helping Minnesotans register to vote and get to the polls, Darris had the chance to cast a ballot for the first time last year. 

“It meant the world to me to be able to walk in with my daughter, and my wife, go into the booth, cast that ballot, walk out of there with a little red sticker and feel the pride of joy of having this be an entire family experience,” Darris said.

The American Civil Liberties Union is intervening in the case on behalf of Darris and another Minnesotan who previously served time. Darris said he hopes the court will uphold the law so he and others can maintain their opportunity to vote.

“No matter what the decision is, we are going to continue to be your neighbors, to be your colleagues, your friends, we’re going to be here in society,” Darris said. “And to me, that means that it is critical that we are all part of this shared experience, in this shared experiment.”

The Supreme Court doesn’t have a hard timetable for ruling. But Hartshorn, the lawyer for the Secretary of State’s Office, asked that at least the controversy be decided by June 28.

In the past, the court has handed down its election-related rulings and months later explained its rationale in an expanded opinion. That could also occur in this case.