Judge challenges Restore the Vote Act, denying felons right to vote

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(ABC 6 News) – The future of a recently passed state law that restores voting rights for Minnesotans with state felony convictions may now be in question after a court ruling out of Mille Lacs County.

The issue can be traced back to a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that left the issue of restoring felon voting rights up to the legislature.

That ruling allowed state lawmakers to pass the Restore the Vote Act earlier this year, restoring the right to vote for convicted felons who were no longer incarcerated.

That law is now being challenged by Mille Lacs County District Judge Matthew Quinn, who has denied four convicted felons that were sentenced to parole their right to vote over the last week.

This throws the voting rights of 55,000 Minnesotans into question, including 2,023 in Olmsted and Dodge counties. The Minnesota chapter of the ACLU is calling it an attack on a fundamental right.

“When the vote is taken away, their voice is taken away,” said MN ACLU Staff Attorney David McKinney. “These people are going through rehabilitation and they’re trying to get back into the community.”

Quinn called the Restore the Vote Act unconstitutional, saying he had a duty to “independently evaluate the voting capacity” of felons after completing probation.

Crime Researcher John Lott has studied felon voting restoration laws in different states, and says he understands why Quinn made this decision.

“Even though we don’t trust them to have professional jobs, we don’t trust them to go and own weapons, somehow we trust them now to be able to make decisions on women’s health or on who’s going to be running law enforcement in different areas,” said Lott.

Quinn was never asked to determine the constitutionality of the Restore the Vote Act. When ruling these cases, he didn’t notify the parties, or the Attorney General, that he would be denying voting rights.

“That’s a problem in terms of our system because we honor due process and opportunity for individuals to be heard when their liberties are taken away, in this case, their voting rights,” said McKinney.

The state’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General Keith Ellison, calls Quinn’s ruling unlawful. He stresses that even though it presents a challenge to the law, this ruling currently has no statewide effect.

Ellison and Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon released a joint statement, saying in part:

“We believe the judge’s orders are not lawful and we will oppose them. The orders have no statewide impact, and should not create fear, uncertainty, or doubt. In Minnesota, if you are over 18, a U.S. citizen, a resident of Minnesota for at least 20 days, and not currently incarcerated, you are eligible to vote. Period. It is critically important that everyone whose rights were restored understands that they are welcome in our democracy.”

Judge Quinn was unable to be reached for comment.