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From voter registration up to and on Election Day to a weeks-long early voting period to no required voter ID, it’s easy to see why Minnesota leads the country with the highest voter turnout at nearly 80%.

However, advocates said Minnesota could improve equity in voting in a few areas, including  increased access to absentee ballot drop boxes, voting rights for people with felony convictions, and doing more to protect against voter intimidation. 

A surge in voting by mail due to concerns about exposure to  COVID-19 in 2020, along with major U.S. Postal Service delivery slowdowns at the time, disenfranchised some Minnesota voters two years ago. 

While some states required only that a mail-in ballot be postmarked by Election Day, or received by a certain number of days after Election Day, the rule in Minnesota was more restrictive.

Absentee ballots and drop boxes

In October 2020, a U.S. Appeals Court ruled that the state’s plan to count absentee ballots received after Election Day was illegal.

So voters rushed to return their ballots either in person at their county election office, or if they were fortunate enough to have ballot drop boxes in their county, they returned their ballot that way. But distribution of drop boxes in Minnesota has been inconsistent depending on the approach of local officials.

Unlike some Republican-controlled states that banned drop boxes after the 2020 election over unproven concerns about security and fraud, Minnesota’s Democratic legislature and governor passed a bill to fund ballot drop box grants for counties that want them. This came after advocates highlighted their convenience and popularity.

Minnesota’s ballot drop box policy remains the same except for a new requirement that they must have 24-hour surveillance. Local control means that some voters don’t have the option to vote by drop box, and the surveillance requirement adds an extra burden that some communities might not be able to meet.

Hennepin County, for example, home to Minneapolis and a significant portion of the state’s Black and Latino population, has 793,027 registered voters. During the 2020 election, there were only two drop boxes for the entire county. 

People with felony convictions cannot vote

Only two states — Maine and Vermont — along with Washington, D.C.,  don’t strip people incarcerated on felony convictions of their voting rights. 

Minnesota activists and some politicians on both sides of the aisle have been fighting for years to be the third state. In 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union Minnesota filed a state lawsuit, Schroeder v. Minnesota Secretary of State, seeking to restore voting rights to those with a felony conviction. 

Right now, the case is with the state’s Supreme Court. 

Last year, state Democrats tried to add restoring voting rights for people with felony convictions on probation to their election security bill, but it was dropped during negotiations with Republicans. 

About this series

This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

“We’ve got data in our lawsuit that shows how people of color are disproportionately affected by this. So there are more people of color living in the community who can’t vote, and that has generational impacts,” said Teresa Nelson, legal director at the ACLU of Minnesota. 

There are 52,336 Minnesotans who are on probation or supervised release and are not able to cast a vote every year – a majority of whom are people of color — the ACLU of Minnesota said in its lawsuit.

According to a 2016 report by the Minnesota state legislature, 37% of the state’s convicted felons are Black, despite Black people making up only 6% of the state’s population. 

Libertarian Party files lawsuit alleging voter intimidation

For years, third parties have struggled to consistently get a ballot line because of systemic hurdles in the state of Minnesota. 

The state requires voters who sign a third party’s nomination petition to declare under perjury they won’t participate in either of the major parties’ primary. In 2019, Minnesota’s Libertarian Party filed a federal lawsuit to challenge that law, saying it violates voters’ First and 14th amendment rights because it intimidates voters and doesn’t serve a purpose in the election process. 

​“By making such people subject to criminal prosecutions by merely signing a minor party candidate’s petition and by threatening the imposition of severe criminal penalties for perjury, the government deters people from signing nominating petitions for Libertarian Party or other minor party candidates,” the Libertarian Party wrote in the suit. 

The Libertarian Party lost the case in 2020, but they have since appealed the ruling. 

Currently, to run for a local or statewide race, third parties in Minnesota have to collect signatures from registered voters. If successful, they have to get at least 5% of the vote for a statewide elected office to keep a ballot line without collecting signatures for the next election. 

Minor parties have been lobbying  the state legislature to change the requirement. Bills HF 708 and SF 752  would allow minor parties to have a ballot line for local and state office candidates if they earn 1% of the previous election’s vote. That would eliminate the petition signature requirement before each election. The bills, which were introduced in 2019 and 2020, haven’t made it out of a legislative subcommittee.

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DeArbea Walker is a freelance digital journalist who’s covered everything from the intersection of...