In a ground-breaking ruling, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday struck down our state constitution's provision barring felons from voting. The court found that racial minorities with felony convictions in Washington are disproportionately prevented from voting and that this stems from racial discrimination in the state's criminal justice system, thereby violating the landmark federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
"We are pleased that the Ninth Circuit expressly acknowledged the racial bias that pervades our state's criminal justice system and its pernicious effect on minority citizens. This finding has importance far beyond the issue of voting by felons. It puts a spotlight on the need for significant reform of our justice system," said Sarah Dunne, ACLU-WA legal director.
The suit (Farrakhan v. Gregoire) was brought over a decade ago by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Gonzaga Law School on behalf of several minority citizens who had been denied the right to vote after being convicted of felonies. The lawsuit argued that in light of the pervasive racial discrimination in Washington's criminal justice system, automatically disenfranchising citizens with felony convictions leads to disqualifying a disproportionate number of minority voters, in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The suit included extensive data about the disparate rates of arrests and prosecutions for minorities.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington had dismissed the case in 2006. The district court had found that while there was compelling evidence of race discrimination in Washington's criminal justice system, there was not evidence of other forms of official discrimination; the court reasoned that the absence of discrimination in other official arenas offset the finding of discrimination in the criminal justice system. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, saying that disparities in the state's justice system "cannot be explained in race-neutral ways."
The state is appealing the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, so felons who are incarcerated cannot yet vote. The ruling does not affect the ACLU-promoted reform of the state's voting rights restoration system. Ending Washington's version of the poll tax, the 2009 legislature passed a measure providing that citizens with felony convictions now regain the vote automatically once they are no longer under state-supervised parole or probation; their right to vote no longer is tied to paying off legal system debts.