Minnesota leaders to fight court ruling that restoring voting rights for felons was unconstitutional

A pro-Trump Minnesota judge declared a new state law restoring voting rights for convicted felons unconstitutional, drawing a sharp rebuke from Minnesota’s attorney general and secretary of state who said he overstepped his authority and urged residents to vote anyway.

Mille Lacs County District Judge Matthew Quinn declared the law unconstitutional in a pair of orders last week in which he sentenced two offenders to probation, but warned them they are not eligible to vote or register to vote — even though the law says they are. It was an unusual step because nobody involved in those cases ever asked him to rule on the constitutionality of the law.

In his orders, Quinn, concluded the Legislature’s passage of the law did not constitute the kind of "affirmative act" he said was needed to properly restore a felon’s civil rights. So he said he now has a duty going forward to "independently evaluate the voting capacity" of felons when they complete probation.

Attorney General Keith Ellison and Secretary of State Steve Simon said in a joint statement that Quinn’s orders "fly in the face of the Legislature’s passage of the Restore the Vote Act."

The law, which took effect in July, says people with felony convictions regain the right to vote after they have completed any prison term. They said a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling in February affirmed the Legislature has the power to set voting rights.

"We believe the judge’s orders are not lawful and we will oppose them," the statement said. "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."

The judge was reprimanded by the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards two years ago for his public support of former President Donald Trump and his critical comments about President Joe Biden. The county court administration office referred news media calls seeking comment from Quinn to the Minnesota Judicial Branch, which said he can’t answer questions and, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on his actions.

The law expanded voting rights to at least 55,000 Minnesotans. It was a top priority for Democrats, who framed it as a matter of racial equity and part of a national trend.

Across the country, according to a report released Wednesday by The Sentencing Project, more than 2 million Americans with felony convictions have regained the right to vote since 1997 due to changes in 26 states and the District of Columbia. Those changes have reduced the number of people disenfranchised by felony convictions by 24% since a peak in 2016, the report said.

The attorney general plans to defend the law but is still determining the next steps.

"Attorney General Ellison takes seriously his constitutional duty to defend Minnesota statutes, and plans to intervene in these matters to uphold the statute as well as the rule of law," said his spokesperson, Brian Evans.

Quinn, who was appointed by former Democratic Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton in 2017, was publicly reprimanded by the ethics board in 2021 for expressing support for Trump on social media and participating in a "Trump Boat Parade" on the Mississippi River while wearing a Make America Great Again hat and flying Trump flags from his boat. He called Biden a vulgarity in one post. The reprimand noted Quinn deactivated his Facebook account when he learned of the board’s investigation and admitted his actions were "imprudent, indecorous and contrary to the spirit of the Canons."

Quinn’s term expires in 2025. Minnesota’s judicial races are officially nonpartisan and its judges generally try to stay out of the political fray.