In Minnesota, convicted felons can only vote after they’ve finished probation–a problem, the ACLU claims, when some people are given decades of probation for petty offenses.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota plans to appeal a dismissed lawsuit which asserts that felons should be afforded the right to vote.
According to The Minnesota Post, the complaint was filed last year in Ramsey County District Court. The ACLU had decided to take action after the state Legislature did not pass a series of bills which would have restored felons’ voting rights after they have finished serving the terms of a sentence.
In their lawsuit, the ACLU argued that that voting is a fundamental right—and that there is no reason to deprive felons of that right after they have been released from prison.
Writing in a recently-lodged appeal, the ACLU alleged that extant Minnesota state law is, in fact, unconstitutional and in violation of the 14th Amendment.
“The current disenfranchisement scheme cannot survive Minnesota’s rational-basis review because the Legislature has never articulated any purpose for denying voting rights to individuals who live in the community on probation, parole, or supervised release,” the appeal states.
“Appellants function as participating members of their communities identical in all relevant respects to eligible voters: they work, volunteer, raise families, worship, pay taxes, hold and advocate political opinions, and participate in the private, civic, and public lives of their communities,” the ACLU wrote. “In marked contrast to incarceration, they now have all of the rights, freedoms, and standing needed to participate in the state’s elections.”
The Minnesota Postnotes that a central component of the ACLU’s argument—and request—is that felons should be able to vote even if they are still on probation.
In their suit, the ACLU referenced the case of plaintiff Jennifer Schroeder, who was convicted of drug possession in 2013. She was released from a county jail after only one year—however, Schroeder’s sentence mandated that she spend a mind-boggling 40 years on probation. In other words, she will not be able to vote until 2053.
The Post observes that, after the ACLU filed its lawsuit against the state, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission moved quickly to cap the probationary period for most offenses at five years.
Nevertheless, the ACLU’s complaint was dismissed over the summer by Judge Laura Nelson, who said the civil rights group failed to demonstrate that felons are entitled to the right to the vote. Although Nelson acknowledged that the ACLU made “compelling” points about the disproportionate effect of disenfranchisement on people of color, she said that issue is one for the Legislature to figure out.
On November 24th, though, a coalition of state attorneys general—led by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine—filed a friend of the court brief supporting the ACLU’s position. In the brief, the attorneys general noted that many states have begun moving away from felon disenfranchisement.
“Felon disenfranchisement is the product of a patchwork of state laws, which vary widely,” they wrote. “In recent years, however, a trend has emerged: based on doubts about the efficacy of disenfranchisement, states have begun moving away from broadly disenfranchising former felons.
“Moreover, the disproportionate impact of felon disenfranchisement laws on voters of color raises serious state constitutional and democratic concerns,” the attorneys general said. “Minnesota’s felon disenfranchisement law, which conditions restoration of voting rights on a former felon’s completion of probation, parole, or supervised release, is out of step with these important issues.”