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Federal Appellate Court Strikes Blow Against Washington State’s Felon Disfranchisement in Significant Voting Rights Case

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Washington State’s law denying the vote to people with felony convictions is racially discriminatory and violates the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

“This significant ruling recognizes that racial discrimination in Washington’s criminal justice system has infected the State’s political process,” said John Payton, LDF Director-Counsel. “The result is that Black, Latino and Native America persons convicted of felonies in Washington are disproportionately denied the right to vote.”

The Court found “compelling”evidence that “in the total population of potential ‘felons’...minorities are more likely than whites to be searched, arrested, detained, and ultimately prosecuted. If those decision points are infected with racial bias, resulting in some people becoming felons not just because they have committed a crime, but because of their race, then that felon status cannot, under section 2 of the VRA, disqualify felons from voting.” The State did not dispute this compelling evidence.

As a result of Washington’s law, 24 percent of Black men and 15 percent of the entire Black population in Washington have lost their voting rights because of a felony conviction. Collectively, African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans represent only 12% of Washington's population, but comprise 36% of the State's incarcerated population.

“The evidence showed that the rate at which Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans are convicted of felony offenses and consequently disqualified from voting is not reflective of their actual participation in criminal behavior,” said Ryan P. Haygood, Co-Director of LDF’s Political Participation Group. “These racial disparities tell a troubling story of minority overrepresentation in the criminal justice system resulting not from any public safety imperative but rather from discrimination. The Court recognized that our democracy cannot be eroded by compounding this serious injury through felon disfranchisement.”

The Court’s ruling strikes down Washington’s discriminatory felon disqualification scheme.

“We are pleased by the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, which recognizes that discriminatory disfranchisement laws undermine core American ideals of fairness and democracy,” said Larry Weiser, Director of the University Legal Assistance law clinic at Gonzaga Law School.

The lawsuit was originally filed by a group of Black, Latino and Native American incarcerated persons. The Plaintiffs are now represented by the University Legal Assistance law clinic at Gonzaga Law School and LDF.

Nationally, more than 5.3 million Americans are denied access to the fundamental right that is preservative of all other rights. An estimated 2 million of the disfranchised, roughly 38%, are African Americans. Maine and Vermont permit prisoners to vote by absentee ballot from prison.