Voting law affecting thousands back before Minnesota Supreme Court

Published 5:46 am Monday, April 1, 2024

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By Dana Ferguson, Minnesota Public Radio News

For the second time in recent years, the Minnesota Supreme Court is examining laws that dictate when people convicted of felonies are allowed back in the voting booth.

On Monday, the court will hear oral arguments in a case challenging a relatively new state law that restored the right to vote to those convicted of a felony after they serve time behind bars. Even if they’re on supervised release or probation, they can now vote.

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This time, 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 in early February 2023 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.

“[The law] conflicts with the Minnesota Constitution, which limits voting rights to those who have been convicted of felony crimes, and who have not yet been restored to civil rights because it only attempts to restore the civil right to vote,” said James Dickey, an attorney arguing on behalf of the alliance.

“It’s important to uphold the rule of law and make sure that we’re following along with what our constitution says.”

Dickey said it’s important the court offer a rapid response as to whether the law can stand so that Minnesota voters have clarity and lawmakers could possibly rework the policy if it’s found to be unconstitutional.

“As long as there’s kind of this lingering question out there, well, you know, was this done right? Is this consistent with what our constitution says? It’s important to get that kind of lingering doubt resolved as soon as possible,” Dickey said.

Attorney General Keith Ellison agreed the issue should be cleared up quickly. Ellison is representing the state but will not be in court Monday due to a shoulder surgery.

“We’ve got [an] election coming up in November, and there will be other primary elections coming up before that,” the DFL attorney general said on MPR News last week. “And people need to know, can I vote or can I not?”

There is no set timetable for the Supreme Court to issue decisions after a hearing — the last time it took more than a year to rule — but the upcoming election and lingering questions could be a consideration this time.

Ellison said he’s confident the court will reject the appeal and let the voting law stand. 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.

“The justices have said that the Legislature is fully empowered to set voting qualifications, they can set qualifications or they can change them. And they have, and the Legislature is well within its rights to restore people to vote when they get out of confinement,” he said on MPR News’ Politics Friday.

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.

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.”