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Courts Give WA Felons Voting Rights

Courts Give WA Felons Voting Rights

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The Seattle Times via YellowBrix

January 06, 2010

SEATTLE, WA – A federal appeals court on Tuesday tossed out Washington’s law banning incarcerated felons from voting, finding the state’s criminal-justice system is “infected” with racial discrimination.

The surprising ruling, by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle, said the law violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising minority voters.

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The decision is the first in the country’s federal appeals courts to equate a prohibition against voting by incarcerated felons with practices outlawed under the federal Voting Rights Act, such as poll taxes or literacy tests.

But Washington’s 37,000 felons in prison or on community supervision should not yet break out their voter pamphlets. State Attorney General Rob McKenna said he will appeal — either back to a larger 9th Circuit panel, or directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The two-judge majority apparently was persuaded by the plaintiffs’ argument that reams of social-science data filed in the case showed minorities in Washington are stopped, arrested and convicted in such disproportionate rates that the ban on voting by incarcerated felons is inherently discriminatory.

The decision, written by Judge A. Wallace Tashima, said the studies "speak to a durable, sustained indifference in treatment faced by minorities in Washington’s criminal justice system — systemic disparities which cannot be explained by ‘factors independent of race.’ "

McKenna said the ruling, if upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, would apply to all 48 states that ban voting by felons in prison or on supervision. But he disputed the research and the court’s legal reasoning.

“What the 9th Circuit did here is misapply the Voting Rights Act,” he said. “They just got it wrong.”

The case was first filed in Spokane in 1996 by Muhammad Shabazz Farrakhan, who was serving a three-year sentence at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla for a series of felony-theft convictions. Ultimately, five other inmates, all members of racial minority groups, joined as plaintiffs.

The case has twice bounced between district court and the appeals court.

It was built on research by University of Washington sociologists who found that blacks are 70 percent more likely — and Latinos and Native Americans 50 percent more likely — than whites to be searched in traffic stops.

The research also showed that blacks are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, despite the fact that the ratio of arrests for violent crime among blacks and whites is less than four-to-one. One result of that: 25 percent of black men in Washington are disenfranchised from voting.

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