The ACLU of Minnesota and national ACLU argued a major voting rights case Tuesday before the Minnesota Supreme Court, asking the court to serve as a refuge for the disenfranchised.
More than 53,000 Minnesotans who live, work, pay taxes, and thrive in their communities are prohibited from voting while on probation or parole for a felony conviction, and we asked the court to let them vote as true community members.
The case, Schroeder v. Minnesota Secretary of State, was first brought to Ramsey County District Court in 2019 on behalf of lead plaintiff Jen Schroeder, who was in the courtroom Tuesday. Schroeder was sentenced to 40 years of probation for a drug possession charge while struggling with addiction. She’s gone to become a drug and addiction counselor herself, and is now a stay-at-home mom. Yet Schroeder can’t vote again until she is 71.
“Ms. Schroeder’s facts show the extreme arbitrary nature” of felony convictions, said Craig Coleman, a partner with Faegre Drinker and pro-bono counsel on the case.
Schroeder is just one of the tens of thousands of Minnesotans living in our communities who are barred from the most basic right of citizenship. In 2016, one out of every 41 Minnesotans was on probation or parole.
Allowing felony probation and felony parole to disenfranchise voters has significant racial impacts. “These facts are undisputed,” Coleman told the court. “Disenfranchisement disproportionately disadvantages persons of color.”
Despite comprising 4% of our state’s population, Black people account for 20% of disenfranchised voters. Those terrible disparities persist for American Indian and Latinx communities as well.
“It’s fundamentally wrong that people of color and indigenous people are still disproportionately denied the right to vote,” said ACLU-MN staff attorney David McKinney. “Given this nation’s history with racism and mass voter disenfranchisement, any law that produces such disparities is not just, and should not be upheld by our courts.”
These racial disparities — acknowledged by both sides in this case — are caused by the state’s irrational voting disenfranchisement laws and violate the Minnesota Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection, argued Coleman. “The current system treats people who are on probation and living in the community as unequal to their neighbors for no rational reason.”
Justice Paul C. Thissen equated felony-voting disenfranchisement to poll taxes and literacy tests, saying there was virtually no difference in the impact as they were also neutral on their face, but produced stark racial disparities.
Arguing on behalf of the Minnesota Secretary of State, Assistant Attorney General Angela Behrens ceded that there is no public safety argument for disenfranchisement, and did not dispute the racial disparity underlying the state’s laws. Instead Behrens argued that it is the role of the Legislature to create laws for reinstating voting rights to those convicted of felonies.
But Coleman argued that voting shouldn’t be used as a punishment. The goal of our system is rehabilitation, and barring people from voting not only undermines that goal, it increases recidivism and prevents people from connecting with and engaging with their communities.
Justice Hudson pointed to the “overwhelming evidence” that disenfranchisement is not an effective tool for rehabilitation. “If you want to rehabilitate folks,” Justice Hudson said, “get them reengaged in the community again. And voting is a huge part of that.”