Attorneys gathered in an Anoka County courtroom Monday to debate a lawsuit that challenges a new Minnesota law granting felons the right to vote before they have finished serving their sentences.
The lawsuit was filed in June by the Minnesota Voters Alliance and Anoka County residents Mary Amlaw, Ken Wendling and Tim Kirk. They are being represented by the Upper Midwest Law Center.
The lawsuit names Secretary of State Steve Simon, Anoka County elections official Tom Hunt, and Lino Lakes Minnesota Correctional Facility executive Shannon Reimann as respondents. It challenges the constitutionality of legislation passed in March and enacted June 1, which restores voting rights to those convicted of felonies who are no longer incarcerated but still serving their sentence via probation or parole. Previously, felons were required to complete their entire sentence, including probation or parole, before being able to vote.
The lawsuit argues that the Minnesota Constitution prohibits felons from voting until they have been “restored to civil rights.”
“That’s ‘civil rights,’ plural, meaning all civil rights that a non-felon possesses. The Constitution does not create legislative authority to restore the singular right to vote before all civil rights are restored to an individual convicted of a felony,” the lawsuit explains.
James Dickey, senior counsel for the Upper Midwest Law Center, said he is pleased with how Monday’s arguments went and is “hopeful for a decision in our favor in the near future.”
“Minnesota’s founders put in our Constitution that when someone is convicted of a felony before a jury of their peers, they lose the right to vote unless they are fully restored to their ‘civil rights.’ At the very least, ‘civil rights’ means the right to vote, hold office, and sit on a jury. With the new felon voting law, the Legislature attempted to restore only ‘the civil right to vote’ without restoring anything else. And for those serving suspended sentences, the new law says the right to vote is never lost, which is impossible under the Constitution and Minnesota Supreme Court precedent. So, the law is unconstitutional,” he explained.
However, Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office (on behalf of Simon) claimed that this argument fails because the new felon voting law by default “restores both the civil right to vote and the civil right to hold public office.”
“These are more than one right, satisfying Petitioners’ argument that ‘civil rights’ must mean plural rights,” the state said.
According to Minnesota Statutes, a person is ineligible for state office if he has been “convicted of treason or a felony” and “the person’s civil rights have not been restored.”
Additionally, the Minnesota Constitution not only addresses who may vote, but also who is eligible to hold office, the state said in its response.
“[The Minnesota Constitution] also addresses who is eligible to hold office, which it equates (subject to a geographic and age requirement) with eligibility to vote. Thus, by restoring the right to vote to people with felony convictions, the legislature also restored the right to hold office. Individuals subject to the statute are therefore, to use Petitioners’ own words, restored to ‘civil rights, plural, not just the singular right to vote,'” the state said.
In response, Dickey argued that the new law only purported to restore the right to vote and did not “reference the right to hold office.”
“This supposed second restoration would only be incidental to the restoration of the right to vote, per State Respondents’ reading of Article VII, Section 6 of the Minnesota Constitution. But that provision requires that, for a person to hold public office, that person must be, ‘by the provisions of this article … entitled to vote.’ So, in order to hold public office, a felon must regain ‘by the provisions of’ Article VII a right to vote,” he wrote in a reply. “Thus, a felon still needs to be ‘restored to civil rights’ to get the right to vote, to then hold office — if the Legislature’s attempted restoration of the right to vote is ineffective, then the right to hold office is not impacted. In other words, State Respondents cannot bootstrap the failed restoration of the right to hold public office into a qualifying ‘civil right ’— because the right to vote itself was not properly restored.”
The Secretary of State’s Office said all “state and local candidates must be eligible to vote in Minnesota.”
“Since a new law restored voting eligibility to some, it also allowed those people to run for office — assuming they were otherwise qualified,” a spokesperson said.
Dickey was surprised by this interpretation of the new law.
“We were very surprised to read the Secretary of State’s brief in this case claiming that felons still serving their sentences — even those on work release — are now eligible to hold public office by virtue of the felon voting law,” he told Alpha News. “We were also surprised that they doubled down on that in open court. I doubt legislators debating this law at the Capitol had any idea that restoration to the right to hold public office was on the table. And that’s probably because it wasn’t.”