Advocates hope automatic voter registration diversifies Minn. jury pools

Proposed legislation to automatically register all eligible voters would likely boost turnout at the ballot box, but some believe that expanding Minnesota's voter rolls could also bring greater diversity to jury pools that have increasingly lacked people of color.

The state's jury selection process pulls from the names of registered voters, licensed drivers and state ID card holders. Jury pools underrepresent people of color because of racial disparities among registered voters and licensed drivers. And though jury duty is assigned at random, concern is growing in the legal community over decreasing representation.

The Minnesota Judicial Committee for Equality and Justice Study on Jury Race Data found that white, non-Hispanic Minnesotans represent 88% of jurors, while other racial groups are underrepresented in juries.

In Hennepin County alone, 14% of the population is Black, but between 2018 and 2022, they comprised less than 7% of jury pools at the courthouse in downtown Minneapolis.

Automatic voter registration, or AVR, is part of a broader legislative package to strengthen and protect the right to vote. More than 20 other states have this law on the books.

By automatically registering all eligible voters, the jury pool source list expands to include eligible residents when they turn 18. But the list grows even more when those applying for or renewing a driver's license, medical assistance and benefits to a state agency are also added to the voter rolls.

Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty, a former longtime public defender, said she's talking with lawmakers about the dramatic impact on jury pools AVR would have as an unintended benefit.

"It's really important to have diverse juries because there's research out there that says a diverse jury engages in a higher quality of deliberation and it creates more legitimacy in the system and in our verdicts," Moriarty said.

State Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis, is a former public defender and knows from her experience as a voting-rights lawyer that inclusion is critical in the polls and courtroom.

"We live in a multiracial, multigenerational society," she said. "Whether it's folks turning out to vote to make decisions about who represents them, or folks showing up in a jury pool to make important self-governance decisions of having a trial by a jury of one's peers, both of those are ways that we as Americans practice democracy."

All these groups are more racially and ethnically diverse than the state's older, non-Hispanic white population, which is more likely to be registered to vote and have a driver's license.

The plan is met with some skepticism among state court staff. Jeff Shorba, the state court administrator of the Minnesota Judicial Branch, said in a statement that adding or expanding lists "does not necessarily create more accurate or complete source lists, and may instead create a list that is over-inclusive, with too many duplicates, which can negatively impact randomization and representativeness."

"While adding people to the list of registered voters would ensure they are included on the juror source list, they are already on the list if they have been issued a driver's license or state identification card," Shorba wrote.

The legislation being considered in the House and Senate does not spell out how it would influence racial makeup of jury pools. But state Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, said it's another positive outcome.

"Because sometimes it is hard to get a diverse jury and of course juries are supposed to represent the citizenship," said Carlson, who chairs the Senate Elections Committee.

This push for AVR coalesces with what public defenders are calling the greatest call to action on addressing jury representativeness after years of advocating for change.

Public defenders across the state filed scores of petitions in November arguing that juror selection excludes people of color. In response, Hennepin County District Judge John Lucas ruled in January that Hennepin jury pools need improvement with statewide action. He said the percentage of minority representation in juries is "inadequate and unacceptable."

"The current jury selection system is completely race neutral," Lucas wrote, "yet it produces unbalanced results."

Hamline University law professor and political analyst David Schultz said the state has known that juries undercount people of color for years, but it has dug its head in the sand. He said 40-some years ago when the state was 95% white, Minnesota could get away with lacking jury diversity. But now, nearly 20% of Minnesotans are people of color.

"We don't have the leisure to ignore the racial disparities now," he said.

"We have some of the worst racial disparities in the country in terms of education, incarceration, etc. None of this stuff is separate. It's all part of a larger picture about how the state of Minnesota, in my opinion, seems to just turn a blind eye to the issue of race."

Longtime Hennepin County public defender Emmett Donnelly has been fighting for representative juries for years. He said AVR will help this persistent problem, but it's not the cure-all.

Donnelly said, for example, that many 18-year-olds move away for college, so it's not guaranteed they could improve jury representation through AVR.

He said the state should collect more data on why jurors don't respond to summonses, and use tax rolls for summoning jurors along with voter rolls and driver's licenses.

There's also the issue of jury compensation. Jurors get paid $20 per day. For comparison, that's how much the Hennepin County Government Center charges to park in its ramp.

Moriarty noted that some small-business owners can't afford to take weeks off work to serve on juries. And Greenman said people living paycheck to paycheck, who have child-care issues and other financial hardships, have a harder time serving on juries, too.

"We need to look at things holistically because expanding the list is great," Greenman said. "But if folks can't or don't respond to summons or have to be excused because they can't afford to serve, that doesn't advance our ultimate goal, which is having those 12 jurors be representative and inclusive of the communities where defendants would be coming from."

Donnelly said more than ever before, the state is on notice.

"This is the time to act," he said. "It happens to be timed with the Legislature taking some action on inclusiveness with respect to voter registration, which I think sets an important public policy point that inclusiveness is important in the state. And let's not forget the jury system is the backbone of it all. There's nothing more democratic than that."

Star Tribune data reporter Jeff Hargarten contributed to this report.