Minnesota blocks people with felony convictions from voting once they complete their prison sentences. The practice is unconstitutional, the American Civil Liberties Union argued in a lawsuit filed in state court Monday.
Forty-eight states strip people of the right to vote once they are convicted of a felony. But Minnesota requires people to complete probation and parole, in addition to any prison sentence, before they can vote again. That means 51,363 of the 63,340 people disenfranchised in the state ― 81% ― are on parole or probation, according to a 2016 estimate by The Sentencing Project.
The ACLU filed the suit on behalf of four Minnesotans with felony convictions, all of whom have completed some period of incarceration. The lead plaintiff in the suit, Jennifer Schroeder, lost the right to vote in 2013 because she was convicted of drug possession. She served one year in county jail, but because her sentence included 40 years of probation, she won’t be able to vote again until 2053, the complaint says.
ACLU lawyers argue that requiring Schroeder and others like her to complete probation or parole before they can vote again deprived them of the Minnesota constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under law, due process and the right to vote.
“In many instances, Minnesota citizens who have been convicted of a felony never see the inside of a prison, but are placed on extremely long periods of probation or supervised release that can last for decades,” the lawyers wrote. “Consequently, these citizens live, work, marry, have kids, send their kids to school, play, shop, pay taxes, volunteer, worship, and otherwise participate in Minnesota communities for years while being denied the right to vote.”
The suit comes amid renewed national interest in changing longstanding restrictions on when people with felony convictions can vote. Nevada lawmakers recently approved a change to allow people to vote once they are released from prison, a move that could affect up to 77,000 people. Colorado also made a similar change that could affect nearly 11,500 people. Last fall, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to do away with the state’s lifetime voting ban for people with felony convictions.
Recently failed efforts to change state law, Minnesota’s strong constitutional protections and the high number of people on community supervision in the state all contributed to the decision to file the lawsuit in Minnesota state court, said Theresa Lee, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s voting rights project.
In total, 1.5% of Minnesota’s entire voting age population can’t vote because of a felony conviction, according to the 2016 estimate. But the ACLU lawyers said the state’s policy has a disparate impact on minorities and people of color. They noted in the complaint that African Americans comprise 4% of Minnesota’s voting age population, but account for 20% of the total number of disenfranchised people not in prison.
A spokesman for Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon (D), the only named defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment on ongoing litigation. But the spokesman, Peter Bartz-Gallagher, noted Simon supported recent legislative efforts to change the law to allow people to vote once they are out of prison.
The ACLU is also pushing presidential candidates to commit to allowing people to vote in prison. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is the only presidential candidate so far to say that people should unequivocally have the right to vote in prison. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have said they would be comfortable with nonviolent offenders voting in prison. The vast majority of the candidates have said they support allowing people with felonies to vote once they complete their sentences.