Election Day is a good time to reflect on Minnesota’s history of restrictions on the right to vote

Election Day is a good time to reflect on Minnesota's history of restrictions on the right to vote
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

As we take to the voting booth today, the matter of who has been allowed to vote during Minnesota’s 152 years of statehood became a curiosity for me.

My curiosity was triggered, in part, by the relatively baseless debate going on now about “voter fraud” and “election integrity” in the state.

It’s been raised by some folks — a group called the Minnesota Majority — whose affection for inaccuracy seems only to be matched by their intention of limiting who can vote.

It’s also been linked to the belief by some zealots that the 2008 Al Franken-Norm Coleman recount was somehow corrupt.

I will leave that conclusion to others, but I direct all of us to the five members of the Minnesota Supreme Court who upheld Franken’s victory; three of that robed quintet happen to be appointed by Republican governors.

But I digress.

For the fun of it, I dived into the progression of how Minnesota has allowed — or barred — different kinds of people to vote over the years. Now, of course, among others, we continue to bar felons who remain on probation.

It’s no surprise that, in the beginning of Minnesota’s brand of democracy, only white males over 21 could vote.

But there were two notable exceptions in the first 1857 state constitution who also were allowed to vote:

* “Persons of mixed white and Indian blood who have adopted the customs and habits of civilization.”

* And persons of Indian blood “who have adopted the language, customs and habits of civilization, after an examination before any District Court of the state, in such manner as may be provided by law, and shall have been pronounced by said court capable of enjoying the rights of citizenship within the state.”

In talking with Sarah Deer, an assistant professor at William Mitchell College of Law and an expert on American Indian Law, this notion of “habits of civilization” was a term of art nationally. It meant that tribal members would have to show, for instance, they were Christians or had divided their land into individual plots becoming farmer-like, or wore the clothes of white men.

(Members of Indian tribes were not allowed to vote here or in the United States until 1924 when they were granted citizenship.)

Blacks, meanwhile, weren’t allowed to vote in Minnesota either. In fact, state constitutional amendments allowing blacks to vote were defeated by those white-guy voters twice, in 1865 and in 1867. A third try was finally approved by voters in 1868.

In 1875 and, then, in 1898, women received the right to vote, but only on a limited basis; first, for school board issues and later for library board elections.

In 1970, Minnesota got ahead of the rest of the nation and allowed 19-year-olds to vote; a year later, the U.S. Constitution was amended lowering the voting age to 18 nationwide.

But from the get-go, felons have been denied the right to vote. In that very first Constitution, Article 7 read that “no person who has been convicted of treason or any felony, unless restored to civil rights,” could vote. That stands to this day.

In light of all the previous restrictions to classes of people — American Indians, blacks, women, young people — it seems to raise a provocative question: Just who is “Minnesotan enough” to be allowed to vote?

This much we know. It remains illegal for convicted felons who are still on probation to knowingly register and then vote; that is, the citizen must understand that he or she is barred from voting. We’ve written about that a couple of times here, with one case in Minneapolis and another more fascinating case in Crookston.

But Minnesota trails behind many other states in that felon restriction. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have adopted less restrictive rules on limiting when convicted felons may vote; two, Maine and Vermont, allow voting from prison.

A group called the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition points out the problematic nature of the Minnesota’s law. According to Second Chance, as many as 17 percent of African-American men in the state can’t vote because of their felon or probationary status.

Not to get too mushy, but as we head to the polls, we all should savor the right to vote while understanding that history’s trail of electoral freedom is dotted with all kinds of discrimination, still.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/02/2010 - 08:49 am.

    You’ve missed a couple of important points, Jay; I’m sure unintentionally.

    Persons that have been placed under legal guardianship, or those that have been adjudicated incompetent, whether or not under guardianship, is ineligible to vote. MNST sec. 201.014 subd. 2(c).

    This is important, Jay, as it appears that some groups have been making a coordinated effort to deliberately break election law by manipulating the mentally debilitated…


    That’s an outrage.

    Perhaps, in light of your newly informed condition, you’ll appreciate that Minnesota Majority does in fact have basis in fact, and one needn’t be quite so zealous to conclude that election fraud is much more prevalent than some leftists would like us to believe.

  2. Submitted by Jesse Mortenson on 11/02/2010 - 11:33 am.

    Another aspect: when Minnesota was a territory, (white, male) immigrants were allowed to vote. You didn’t need to be a US citizen. It’s an interesting history:


    Goes to show that the insistence today from some quarters that some people are “illegal” and don’t belong in society doesn’t jive with the history of European immigration to Minnesota.

  3. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 11/02/2010 - 11:41 am.

    Swift: name 1. Or 2. Enough to make costly changes that deny many–the elderly, the poor, the disabled, service personnel–the right to vote? I don’t think so.
    The greatest voting fraud ever was the 2000 Presidential election. Even the court at the time said the logic in that decision should not be used in other cases. Some of the Justices (esp. the retired ones) say it was bad law, and are ashamed of the decision.
    You guys are just pounding away at the most vulnerable in our society. Shame on you.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/02/2010 - 03:48 pm.

    Ginny, if you watched the video, you have to be casting shame upon the Democrat party, and I agree with you, but I’m not one of “those guys”.

  5. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 11/02/2010 - 05:18 pm.

    I take a moderate view on felons and voting rights, one that others have also proposed, I believe on MinnPost. I believe that once you have been released from prison, even on parole, and are free to walk around, you should be as free to vote as anyone who has never been convicted of a felony. It’s just a headache to try to distinguish convicts on parole from non-convicts. Just make it simple and deny the vote to felons who are presently sitting in prison, but grant it to felons who have served enough time to be trusted in public again. This should minimize both cost and voter fraud.

    I remember with great bitterness the catastrophic systematic failure of the presidential election of 2000 and sympathize with Ginny Martin’s view of it. But I do have this to add: This electoral disaster had nothing whatsoever to do with VOTER fraud. The wrongdoers and incompetents who badly botched – some would say sabotaged – Florida’s presidential election in the year 2000 were all elected officials or appointed judges, not voters.

    We should take great care not to use the term “voter fraud” to refer to a crime that ought to be called “ELECTION THEFT.” The thieves are not voters, and indeed, you have to have a warped view of reality to imagine that ordinary voters can “steal” an election by means of fraud. For example, suppose I try to vote twice in the same election. That’s a felony, and if I’m caught, I’ll spend years in prison. But have I actually changed the election’s outcome? I’d have to be crazy to take such a huge risk for such a tiny gain.

    As for Thomas Swift’s allegation that suggestible mental incompetents are being manipulated by the people who bring them to the polls, that’s harder to do than you think. Everybody who needs help to fill out a ballot may ask for help and may be accompanied by a helper – but this voter also must be observed by no fewer than two election officials – one from each major party – and every vote they observe must be proposed by the voter, not suggested by the voter’s helper. If the voter isn’t mentally competent enough to say who he or she wants to vote for without any prompting, the ballot must remain blank. (Gary Eichten’s guest on MPR explained these rules to listeners during his “Midday” program today. I don’t remember the guest’s name, but the program should soon be archived and accessible on the Internet.)

    But election officials and judges CAN steal an election. They are the ones who can stuff boxes with hundreds of ballots they suddenly “found,” they are the ones who can “misplace” hundreds of ballots, and they are the ones who can “mistakenly” delete hundreds or even thousands of electronic ballots (if we’re foolish enough to allow them to discard the paper ones). These are the people who need to be very, very, closely watched – not the voters.

    Indeed, I am cynical enough to suspect that the whole “voter fraud” hoopla is nothing but misdirection. It’s deviously crafted to keep us all focused on voters, so that we don’t notice what election officials are doing. They, not the voters, are the ones with the power to make real mischief – the power to fraudulently change the outcome of an election.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/02/2010 - 06:31 pm.

    Good points, all, Mr. Jacobsen.

    I’d guess that most states have a voter-qualification history that’s roughly similar to Minnesota’s – various exclusions at first, then gradual inclusion as times and attitudes change.

    My only really uncomfortable experience as a voter was in Colorado, where my county – for one election – decided to go with the technological flow and institute an electronic voting system. Not only were there unanticipated problems with the voting machines themselves (Why would anyone in authority assume that new technology would be flawless?), but there were gaps in the paper trail, so if a computer record went “poof,” there’d be no certain or reliable way to find out how many had voted for “x” or “y.”

    Once the problems made themselves known, a frantic scramble ensued to try to institute some sort of ad hoc backup, and though none of the electoral contests was close enough to raise questions about the legitimacy of the outcome, the county quickly abandoned purely electronic voting.

    Perhaps it’s old-fashioned, but there ARE things for which a paper record still seems the most reliable way to store information.

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/02/2010 - 08:17 pm.

    The Republican party has used the “voter fraud” attack for so long and in so many ways that any voter (and I’m not particularly left here) who has a long term memory now knows that “voter fraud” is the Republican “cri de guerre” whenever the polls are down or when large swaths of the population with entirely the wrong social and racial profile are being successfully registered or when they just feeling particularly cranky. Think back to the Attorney General firings in 2008. One of them was ostensibly because the Attorney wasn’t pursuing a case of that great Republican fall back, “voter fraud!”

  8. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/03/2010 - 09:40 am.

    In 2000, Florida’s secretary of state illegally removed the names of registered voters from the records at polling places when their names were SIMILAR to those of convicted felons. She then ran for Congress in the next election with Republican endorsement.

    The Diebold machines manufactured by a company whose prez said he would do “anything” to help get George Bush elected were used in Ohio in 2006. Election workers there said that technicians from Diebold came by to “repair” software in the machines and were not (but should have been) accompanied by one of them when they spent time alone with the machines.

    Mysteriously, early evening exit polling that showed Kerry the winner in Ohio was suddenly transformed to show Bush as the winner at about one in the morning, according to a reporter who was watching the returns on TV at that time. The machines had most likely been adjusted so that folks who touched the “Kerry” vote on the screen had their votes changed inside to agree with the technicians’ repairs.

    That’s two stolen elections, followed by two wars financed by selling bonds to China, the Patriot Act and other obscenities, tax cuts for the wealthy that created billionaires (who did NOT create jobs with the extra money) while forcing about a million Americans a year into poverty.

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