Vote 2024 buttons

Minnesota Supreme Court Considering Voting Rights Restoration Law

The court appears poised to leave in place the law, which returns the right to vote to as many as 60,000 people.


A majority of the Minnesota Supreme Court appears poised to keep in place a 2023 state law that restores voting rights to those who were convicted of felonies but are not currently incarcerated.

During oral arguments in Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Hunt on Monday, multiple justices expressed doubts that the plaintiffs have standing. Several justices also repeatedly questioned how the interpretation of the law put forth by Minnesota Voters Alliance, the group claiming the law is unconstitutional, complies with the court’s recent precedent.

The state of Minnesota, arguing for the law to be upheld, asked the justices to issue a ruling by June 28, when voting begins for Minnesota’s statewide primary election. Minnesota consistently has among the highest turnout rate among states for presidential elections. A ruling by the court upholding the 2023 law could mean approximately 60,000 people previously ineligible to vote could participate in the November election.

Citizens lose their right to vote in 48 states, at least temporarily, when convicted of a felony. In Maine, Vermont, and Washington, DC, people with criminal convictions are not at all disenfranchised. Virginia is the only state that permanently disenfranchises everyone with a criminal conviction unless the right is individually restored by the governor. In other states, as with most voting laws, the details of that loss vary. In 13 states, restoration is not available until a person has completed their sentence, including probation or parole. In 22 states, voting rights are restored upon release from incarceration. Last year, Minnesota enacted the law at issue in this case, which put the state in the final camp.

The Minnesota Constitution says that “a person who has been convicted of treason or felony” is not entitled to vote in the state “unless restored to civil rights.” In February 2023, the state supreme court held that a person with a felony conviction was not automatically 
“restored to civil rights” when their incarceration period was complete. Instead, restoration required an “affirmative governmental act,” such as a “legislative act that generally restores the right to vote upon the occurrence of certain events.”

Following the decision, the Minnesota legislature quickly passed a bill, effective June 1, 2023, that restored the right to vote to any person convicted of a felony upon completion of any term of incarceration. This means people on parole or probation can vote.

By the end that month, Minnesota Voters Alliance, which describes itself as “election integrity watchdogs,” had sued the Minnesota secretary of state and other officials, claiming the law was unconstitutional. The organization argues that the requirement that a person with a felony conviction be restored to “civil rights” — plural — contemplates the restoration of multiple rights before a person can vote. Because people on probation or parole cannot, for example, serve on juries, these Minnesotans have not yet been restored to civil rights, say the plaintiffs. In other words, the law attempted to restore a “right,” but failed to restore “rights,” and thus should be struck down.

In December, a district court disagreed. The judge wrote that Minnesota Voters Alliance is reading the constitution as if it says “restored to all civil rights” (italics in original) and that such a reading requires adding something the framers did not intend. Further, the court said, the legislators were responding directly to the 2023 Minnesota Supreme Court opinion, which specifically said a law like this one would constitute an affirmative governmental act that restores civil rights.

In addition to finding that the plaintiffs didn’t have a valid constitutional claim, the district court also ruled they did not have standing to bring the case. The plaintiffs argued that legislative appropriations related to the law were enough to give them standing as taxpayers. But taxpayer standing requires a challenge to “a specific disbursement,” the court said. Lawsuits in the public interest brought by taxpayers are generally dismissed, the court further explained, unless the plaintiffs can show some damage or injury to the party bringing the suit that is different from any damages sustained by the general public. Simple policy disagreements do not confer standing, it said.

Minnesota Voter Alliance filed a petition for accelerated review to the state supreme court. The speed which with the court accepted the case and held oral arguments suggests it plans to reach a decision prior to this fall’s elections.

It’s possible the court could say Minnesota Voters Alliance lacks standing and dismiss the case without ruling on the law itself. Justice Barry Anderson seemed interested in this route, noting at Monday’s argument that the case is over if there is no standing. Other justices sounded more inclined to provide an opinion on whether the law is constitutional. Chief Justice Natalie Hudson, for example, pressed the Minnesota Voters Alliance’s attorney about why exactly the law did not constitute an affirmative act restoring rights under the court’s recent precedent. Justices Paul Thissen and Karl Prococinni both noted several times that even if Minnesota Voter Alliance’s position on the need to restore multiple rights is correct, the group’s argument is flawed nonetheless since restoring the right to vote also, under state law, restores the right to hold office.

An amicus brief by Miriam Seifter and Robert Yablon of the University of Wisconsin Law School’s State Democracy Research Initiative urged the court to address the constitutionality of the law, because of the “judiciary’s important role in resolving election-related controversies and helping the state’s democratic system function smoothly.” Their brief, which supports upholding the law, also points out that states with constitutional provisions like Minnesota’s — including Nevada, North Dakota, and Washington — have voting restoration legislation similar to that at issue here.

During his argument, deputy attorney general Nathan Hartshorn said the “tens of thousands” counting on this law to vote need the court to speak definitively because the lawsuit has instilled “fear and uncertainty.” He asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to tell those would-be voters: “You have been re-enfranchised. You will not be prosecuted for casting a ballot. Please participate in our democracy.”

Erin Geiger Smith is a writer and editor at the Brennan Center for Justice.


Sole footer logo

A project of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law