Elizer Darris will be heading to the polls to cast his first ever ballot following the passage of the Restore the Vote Act earlier this year.
But after the ruling of a Mille Lacs County judge declaring the state’s new law reinstating voting rights to felons unconstitutional, he hopes it won’t prevent others with felony convictions on their records from doing the same.
“I’m hoping that there is no chill effect,” said Darris, a business owner and community activist who spent time in prison as a juvenile on an adult felony conviction. “But quite frankly, it has the ability to make people second guess whether or not they should go into the ballot booth and allow their voices to be heard. It’s dangerous.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is intervening, along with Secretary of State Steve Simon. And the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota said the ruling undermines the new statute, calling it unprompted and unlawful.
The judge’s ruling doesn’t affect the right to vote for any felons outside of his courtroom, but concerns remain over whether the ruling may cause confusion about voter eligibility and suppress the votes of the newly restored demographic.
The Restore the Vote Act, which went into effect in June, was passed by the DFL majorities in both chambers and signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz earlier this year. The statute restored the right to vote to about 55,000 Minnesotans with felony convictions who have served their sentences or who are on probation, or supervised release.
Mille Lacs County District Court Judge Matthew M. Quinn in at least six cases this month sentenced people to probation after being convicted of felonies. Quinn then went on to prohibit them from registering to vote, declaring the new law unconstitutional.
“In sentencing a criminal case, Judge Quinn weighed in with no notice and without proper prompting by any party on an important civil law that is already the subject of civil litigation,” Ellison said. “But a sentencing court has no discretion whatsoever over the voting rights – only the Legislature decides when the right to vote may be restored.”
David McKinney, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, called the ruling “procedurally unprecedented” due to neither attorney in the cases before the judge raising the issue or asking the judge to weigh in.
“Our understanding is that this judge took it upon himself during routine criminal sentencings to decide the issue of the constitutionality of a statute of his own accord,” McKinney said in a statement. “The judge produced this opinion out of thin air.”
Though Quinn’s motivations are explicitly unclear, many have cited the judge’s political leanings as what may have prompted the ruling. In 2021, the Minnesota Board of Judicial Standards issued a public reprimand to Quinn for publicly showing support for former President Donald Trump via likes, comments and posts on Facebook, and for taking part in a Trump Boat Parade on the Mississippi River in September 2020.
“Given the judge’s prior public reprimand by the Minnesota Board of Judicial Standards for improper public partisanship, it is difficult not to wonder whether judicial activism is afoot,” said McKinney.
Darris said the decision harkens back to past tactics used to restrict Blacks from casting ballots after being given the right to vote.
“Many of these tactics were officially ordained by government officials,” he said. “Whether it was poll taxes, or you have to guess how many jelly beans is inside of a jar, or literacy exams, things of this nature – all administered by officials of the state in order to restrict people’s access.”
Two of the individuals who went before Quinn went to the Minnesota Court of Appeals to file writs of prohibition, which are reserved for when district courts exceed their authority and aim to remedy improper uses of judicial power. Last week, Ellison filed notices to intervene in each of the cases, and filed memorandums of support in the two writs of prohibition.
In addition to the judge’s ruling, the Minnesota Voters Alliance (MVA) filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the new law. On Monday, the Upper Midwest Law Center, which represents the MVA in the lawsuit, requested to file an amicus brief on their behalf to the Court of Appeals in support of Quinn’s ruling.
During a Friday news conference, Simon reiterated support for the new statute and made clear that the ruling does not affect voter eligibility. Due to concerns over whether voters will see coverage of the judge’s decision and decide to stay home to avoid any consequences, both Ellison and Simon reassured those statewide that have felonies on their record that they can still go to the polls and vote in the upcoming elections.
“That’s precisely my concern and the reason I’m here is to get rid of any confusion,” Simon told reporters Friday. “This has changed nothing. What the judge did was unlawful and besides the unfortunate few who appeared before this one judge in this one courtroom in one county in Minnesota, this does not affect anyone else in Minnesota.”
During a news conference last week, Walz said he anticipates the judge’s denial of the individuals’ right to vote will be corrected. He expressed support for the law and echoed Simon, assuring voters in the newly restored demographic that the ruling won’t affect their ability to vote.
“No intimidation, no wrong rulings, nothing will preclude you from that very basic right as an American to be able to cast your vote,” the governor said.
MinnPost staff reporter Peter Callaghan contributed to the this story.