WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, Feb. 15, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued a 6-1 opinion upholding a Minnesota law that prevents individuals with prior felony convictions from voting until they are fully discharged from their sentence, which can only be achieved following a court order or the expiration of one’s sentence. This means that the voting rights of over 50,000 formerly incarcerated Minnesotans with prior felony convictions will not be restored if they remain on parole, probation or supervised release.
Today’s decision stems from a 2019 lawsuit filed on behalf of four individuals with prior felony convictions — all of whom completed their required periods of incarceration but were “on parole, probation, or some other form of supervised release” — challenging the state’s felony disenfranchisement law for violating the Minnesota Constitution. In their complaint, the plaintiffs specifically asserted that while the Minnesota Constitution disenfranchises those convicted of a felony until their “civil rights” have been restored, the challenged statute goes further by “refusing to restore the right to vote until discharge.” The plaintiffs further alleged that “[i]n 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. Consequently, these citizens…participate in Minnesota communities for years while being denied the right to vote.” Under this scheme — which the plaintiffs contended the government has no compelling interest in upholding — 52,336 Minnesota citizens, the majority of whom are people of color and indigenous people, are denied the right to vote in violation of the state constitution, according to the lawsuit.
In August 2020, a trial court denied the plaintiffs’ request to invalidate the challenged law and automatically restore the right to vote to “people convicted of felonies who have been released or excused from incarceration.” The Minnesota Court of Appeals, the state’s mid-level court, then affirmed the trial court’s decision. In today’s opinion, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s decision, concluding that the “[p]laintiffs have not offered sufficient evidence to prove that [the felony disenfranchisement law] violates the equal protection principle contained in the Minnesota Constitution” or the fundamental right to vote. The majority also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the Minnesota Constitution affords automatic voting rights restoration to “a person deprived of the right to vote due to a felony conviction…upon release from incarceration.” Regarding the plaintiffs’ contention that the challenged law disproportionately impacts minority Minnesotans, the court held that “the record does not include sufficient evidence to allow us to answer the necessary question of whether [the law] demonstrably and adversely affects Black and Native American Minnesotans compared to the status quo established by the constitution itself.” Finally, the majority noted that the “Minnesota Constitution empowers the Legislature to address the public policy concerns raised…in this case.” Notably, the Minnesota House recently passed a bill to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions who are no longer incarcerated, regardless of whether they are on parole or probation. The state Senate is expected to vote on the legislation soon; if enacted, the legislation would expedite voting rights restoration to Minnesotans with prior felony convictions.
In a powerful dissenting opinion, Justice Natalie Hudson, the court’s only Black member and lone dissenter in this ruling, asserted that the challenged statute does violate the Minnesota Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, writing that the individuals who challenged the law “present strong, uncontested evidence that [the law] has a disparate impact by creating a racial classification in practice” and the “record shows that the statute withholds the right to vote from just 1 percent of voting-age white Minnesotans, compared to over 4 percent of Black Minnesotans and nearly 9 percent of Native Americans in the state.” Hudson aptly underscored the racially pernicious impact of the challenged provision as well as the real-world impact on Minnesotans: “Upholding the constitutionality of [the law], as the court does here, rationalizes and sanctions the racial discrimination inexorably woven into the statute. The real-world consequence of this legislation is that more than 50,000 Minnesotans—disproportionately Minnesotans of color—are politically voiceless until lengthy probation and supervised-release terms conclude.”