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Jen Schroeder, a drug and alcohol addiction counselor who was sentenced to 40 years of probation after she completed jail time and treatment, on Monday, Oct. 21, sued the state of Minnesota over voting restrictions that could bar her from voting until she's 71. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ACLU sues Minnesota over voting laws, aims to restore vote to felons on probation

ST. PAUL — The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota on Monday, Oct. 21, sued the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office, arguing the state's voting laws are unconstitutional as they deny tens of thousands of people on supervision or probation the right to vote.

Four Minnesotans barred from voting due to previous felony offenses and current probation status filed the lawsuit with the ACLU in Ramsey County District Court on Monday. The four are among 52,000 Minnesotans who can't vote because of their supervision or probation status.

Under current law, those convicted of a felony lose the right to vote until after they've completed their sentence including prison time, probation, parole or conditional release. A campaign to restore the vote to felons who complete their prison time or who aren't sentenced to imprisonment failed in the Legislature earlier this year.

But attorneys with the ACLU said they would rather take the decision to the courts following inaction in the Legislature. And they said the quick resolution of the case could be key to getting thousands of Minnesotans the right to vote ahead of the 2020 election.

“The current system treats people who are on probation and living in the community as unequal to their neighbor, as second class citizens, for no rational reason,” David McKinney, an ACLU attorney, said. “Denying someone the right to vote should never be used as a punishment, but rather a means for reintegration.”

Secretary of State Steve Simon and Attorney General Keith Ellison have supported allowing felons who've completed their prison sentences the right to vote. Ellison said he has long supported the legislation but plans to put that aside to defend the law.

“My role is to defend the constitutionality of Minnesota’s duly enacted laws," Ellison said in a statement. "I will do that in this case.”

A spokesman for Simon on Monday declined to comment about the lawsuit as the office doesn't weigh in on pending litigation.

Three of the four plaintiffs named in the lawsuit spoke at a news conference on Monday morning and expressed their frustration about not being able to vote due to their probation sentences.

Jen Schroeder, who now works as a drug and alcohol addiction counselor, said she has felt silent since she lost her right to vote. Schroeder was arrested, jailed and went through treatment after she was pulled over after driving without a license and in possession of drugs. Schroeder is set to spend 40 years on probation and won't be eligible to vote under current law until she is 71.

“The hell an addict goes through is punishment enough," Schroeder said. "Addiction is not just a disease, it’s a symptom of something bigger that’s wrong in our society. Topping it with overly harsh sentences and stripping them of their right to vote does not help recovering addicts or our communities."

Elizer Darris, an organizer with the ACLU, said he drives voters to the polls but he's never been able to vote and wear the signature "I Voted" sticker because of his felony conviction.

“I have no say, no voice, no counted vote,” Darris said. “Everyone deserves a real second chance.”

State Sen. Warren Limmer, who chairs the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, decided not to take up the issue for a hearing during the 2019 legislative session and still had doubts about striking the law. The Maple Grove Republican said the proposal didn't properly weigh the impact criminal actions could have on victims and their families.

"The ACLU has probably made a presumption that there's no way in the world that the Minnesota Senate would pass this," Limmer said.“I find it really hard to believe that the people on the street want to give felons the right to vote when the very same felon has assaulted or stolen something from that innocent citizen."

The ACLU asked the judge to declare that it is a violation of the Minnesota Constitution to deny those on parole, probation or supervised release the right to vote and to declare that those individuals are restored the right to vote if otherwise eligible.

The group also asked that the judge require the Secretary of State's Office to take steps to restore voting rights to ex-offenders who've served their time or who weren't sentenced to jail time and to provide updates about those efforts.