OLYMPIA, Wash. – In a decision that could give momentum to other efforts to expand voting to inmates, a federal appeals court ruled that incarcerated felons should be allowed to vote in Washington state.
There's a patchwork of laws across the nation concerning restoration of felons' voting rights, but only Maine and Vermont allow those behind bars to cast ballots.
The 2-1 ruling by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday overturned the 2000 ruling of a district judge in Spokane. That judge had ruled that Washington state's felon disenfranchisement law did not violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and dismissed a lawsuit filed by a former prison inmate from Bellevue.
The two appellate judges ruled that disparities in the state's justice system "cannot be explained in race-neutral ways."
A spokeswoman said state Attorney General Rob McKenna is weighing the state's next step. Spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie said that they could either ask a larger group of judges from the 9th Circuit to reconsider the ruling or go straight to the U.S. Supreme Court. If appealed, it's likely that the state would seek a stay on inmate's ability to vote until the case is resolved.
While the ruling only currently covers Washington state, if it stands, Guthrie said it could be the basis for litigation in any area covered by the 9th Circuit — Oregon, Idaho, Montana, California, Nevada, Arizona, Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and the Northern Marianas.
Of the more than 18,000 felons currently in state custody who could get their right to vote back under this ruling, 37.1 percent are minorities. Of that group, blacks make up the largest percentage, at 19.2 percent.
The issues the ruling raises about racial bias in the justice system are not unique to Washington state, said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., group promoting sentencing reform.
"They are issues that permeate the justice system and are relevant in every state," he said.
Mauer said that an estimated 5.3 million people nationwide are ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction.
Tuesday's court's ruling is "an embarrassment," said Trent England, a policy director at Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington state.
"It flies in the face of precedent," he said. "Not only is felon disenfranchisement constitutional but it's good policy. People who commit the most heinous crimes should be deprived of their voice in our system of government at least for a time."
The lawsuit was filed by Muhammad Shabazz Farrakhan, formerly of Bellevue. He was serving a three-year sentence at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla for a series of felony-theft convictions when he sued the state in 1996.
Ultimately, five other inmates, all members of racial minority groups, joined as plaintiffs.
The lawsuit contended that because nonwhites make up a large percentage of the prison population, a state law prohibiting inmates and parolees from voting is illegal because it dilutes the electoral clout of minorities. That was a violation of the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965, the lawsuit said.
An attorney for Farrakhan equated disenfranchisement laws to poll taxes and literacy tests of the past.
"In this case, we have proved that the criminal justice system in this state is biased against African-Americans, and the impact has been a violation of their voting rights," said Larry Weiser, a law professor at Gonzaga University School of Law who is the lead attorney in the lawsuit.
The state contended that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the law was not intended to discriminate against minorities.
David Ammons, a spokesman for the state's head elections official, said that Secretary of State Sam Reed "supports minority rights, but believes it is a rational and reasonable sanction for society to demand that felons lose their voting rights while in prison or under community supervision."
Last year, lawmakers passed a law that allows convicted felons to reregister to vote once they're no longer on parole or probation. Previously, felons who were no longer in Washington state custody but owed court-ordered fines and restitution were not allowed to vote. Under the new law that took effect last July, voting rights could be revoked if a felon willingly fails to make regular payments on those financial obligations.
In her dissent, 9th Circuit Judge Margaret McKeown wrote that the majority "has charted territory that none of our sister circuits has dared to explore," and notes that three other appellate courts — the 1st Circuit in a Massachusetts case, the 2nd Circuit in a New York case, and the 11th Circuit in a Florida case — "have all determined that vote denial challenges to felon disenfranchisement laws are not cognizable under the Voting Rights Act."
She wrote that since Washington state passed a law changing voting rights just last year, and after the 9th Circuit heard the Farrakhan case, the case should go back to district court.
"It is not our job to consider, in the first instance, the effect this new law has on plaintiffs' case and whether the totality of the circumstances analysis under ... the Voting Rights Act should be different now that plaintiffs' case remains viable only as to currently incarcerated felons," she wrote.