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Appeals Court Overturns Felony Disenfranchisement

On the heels of my post yesterday urging Governor Kaine to restore voting rights to Virginia ex-felons who have served their sentences comes an appeals court ruling that felony disenfranchisement violates the Voting Rights Act. Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle reports on a 2-1 ruling by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that Washington state law "violates the federal Voting Rights Act because evidence showed discrimination against minorities at every level of the state's legal system: arrest, bail, prosecution and sentencing."

Although the ruling applies to the state of Washington, it could apply to 8 other states in the circuit, including CA, which denies voting rights to 283,000 citizens who are in prison or on parole, about 114,000 of whom are African Americans. Egelko explains further:

Among those in Washington state who commit crimes, "minorities are more likely than whites to be searched, arrested, detained and ultimately prosecuted," Judge A. Wallace Tashima said in the appeals court's majority opinion.

For example, he said, studies showed that African Americans in Washington were more than nine times as likely to be in prison as whites and 70 percent more likely to be searched, even though a study of one police department found that officers were more likely to find contraband when searching whites...Findings were similar for Latinos and Native Americans, none of which could be explained by differences in crime rates, Tashima said.

The Voting Rights Act "demands that such racial discrimination not spread to the ballot box," he said.

What is important about the decision, explains Egelko, is that "The ruling is the first by an appeals court to overturn a state's prohibition on voting by felons, which exists in different versions in every state except Maine and Vermont." However, three previous federal appeals court rulings have said that the Voting Rights Act does not invalidate felony disenfranchisement laws.

It would also be surprising if the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling, given it's current conservative majority and their proclivity for shameless political partisanship. On the other hand, the tide seems to be turning regarding felony disenfranchisement, and we are likely just one justice away from consigning racist felony disenfranchisement laws to their rightful place on the dung-heap of history.