Court Finds Washington Voting Law Racially Discriminatory
Some good news came out of Washington Tuesday.
Sound unlikely? That’s because the news comes from the state of Washington, where the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals essentially struck down the state’s felon disenfranchisement law because it’s racially discriminatory and violates the federal Voting Rights Act.
The case, Farrakhan v. Gregoire, has been in the federal courts since 1996, when the plaintiffs—all minority citizens who had been convicted of felonies—sued the state, claiming that the disenfranchisement law discriminated on the basis of race because Washington disproportionately prosecutes and sentences minorities. They produced some compelling social science research to show that disparities in Washington’s rates of criminal investigation, vehicle searches, arrest, bail recommendations, and confinement could not be explained by “legitimate” factors, such as the higher rate of minority involvement in criminal activity. Rather, the court concluded, the state’s criminal justice system is riddled with racial discrimination at every stage.
Amazingly, the state didn’t dispute the social science evidence, but merely claimed that, even assuming its validity, it is legally insufficient to sustain the plaintiffs’ claim under the Voting Rights Act that the felon disenfranchisement law results in the denial of the right to vote on account of race. The court disagreed.
So now what? Unfortunately, three other federal appeals courts that have taken up this issue have said that the Voting Rights Act does not apply to felon disenfranchisement laws at all, so residents of those regions cannot even mount such a challenge. Felon disenfranchisement laws are literally “all over the map” in this country. Two states, Virginia and Kentucky, permanently bar citizens with felony convictions from voting unless the governor intervenes. Some states make certain felonies subject to disenfranchisement, but not all felonies. Some states require the prisoner to serve his sentence before restoring rights, while others add parole time and any ordered restitution as prerequisites. Two states, Maine and Vermont, allow voting even from prison.
The Democracy Restoration Act of 2009, pending in both houses of Congress, would establish a uniform minimum standard so that millions of eligible American voters who have been released from prison may participate in civic life in their communities. The right to vote is simply too important to allow accidents of geography and confusion by election officials to erect barriers to the ballot box. Maybe the good news from Washington State is just the right nudge to get some action from Washington, DC.