Minnesota Democrats Challenge State Ban on Felons’ Ability to Participate in Caucuses

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Minnesota Democrats are challenging a state statute preventing people who are ineligible to vote from participating in precinct caucuses, saying it prevents nonvoters from participating in party business that extends beyond the ballot box.

Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party Chair Ken Martin said in a statement Thursday night that a lawsuit he filed against Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, also a Democrat, is part of an effort to end racial disparities in the party and the state.

“The DFL Party is committed to ending the rampant racial disparities that exist throughout society, which is why we cannot in good conscience bar Minnesotans who are finishing probation, parole, or supervised release for a felony conviction from participating in our caucuses,” Martin wrote. 

“Due to the important role caucuses play in determining the values and standard-bearers of the DFL Party, we should be extremely skeptical of any laws and regulations that restrict Minnesotans’ access to our caucuses.”

Minnesota is using a primary system for the 2020 presidential and down-ballot races, a system it also adopted for midterm elections in 2018. The DFL’s endorsements, platform and party leadership, however, are still decided by delegates selected at precinct caucuses to go to a statewide convention. 

State convention delegates vote to endorse candidates, elect members of the Democratic National Committee and endorse candidates for state and federal offices, although the candidate whose name appears on general-election ballots is actually decided at a later primary. Martin’s position as party chair is also filled at each biennial convention, along with a handful of other leadership roles.

The Minnesota GOP has its own caucus rules, which require delegates to make speeches and be vetted but the caucus’ functions are fundamentally the same; delegates at caucuses elect delegates to go to district conventions and so on, deciding party leadership and platforms.

Not allowing people who are ineligible to vote, a group including minors, non-citizens like “Dreamers,” who arrived in the U.S. as children, and many people who have been convicted of felonies, to participate in caucuses infringes on the party’s constitutional right to free association, attorney Charles Nauen of Minneapolis firm Lockridge Grindal Nauen argued in the DFL’s complaint.

“The selection of delegates, endorsement of candidates, selection of Party leadership, and adoption of issues and action items to be included in the Pany Platform do not bear a sufficiently close relationship to the election of officials for state or national office such that the State has a compelling interest in limiting participation to eligible voters,” Nauen wrote.

The prohibition prevents a wide range of party members from serving as party officials and delegates or advancing issues important to them via the party’s platform and agenda, he added.

Simon’s office did not respond to a request for comment late Thursday afternoon.

While the complaint pays mention to minors and noncitizens, Martin focused on a third category, people who have been stripped of their right to vote, in his statement. 

Minnesota passed a felon voting ban when it gained statehood in 1858. While that restriction has since been relaxed so that felons can regain voting rights after completing parole or probation, over 53,000 Minnesotans still do not have voting rights because of it, according to the state’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

People of color are heavily impacted by the restriction, according to the ACLU, including 1 in 8 Black men. Campaigns to restore the vote to felons in recent years have made little legislative traction, but the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported in January that restoring voting rights to prisoners after release could enjoy public support as high as 60 percent.

Minnesota’s caucuses, meanwhile, have different struggles. Now that they’re no longer the means to select candidates to go on the ballot, some politicos have begun asking why they’re still being done at all, a question echoed this year by the St. Paul Pioneer Press. 

Critics argue that caucuses favor those willing and able to spend the better part of a weeknight talking politics with their neighbors, while supporters say that’s a small price to pay for meeting your neighbors for in-person deliberations, a benefit reduced this year by Covid-19 restrictions.

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