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Fed judges: Washington felony inmates should get vote

Associated Press | 1/13/2010, 3:15 a.m.

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 last week 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 act, 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.”

 Spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie said state Attorney General Rob McKenna is weighing the state’s next step. Guthrie said  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.

Last week’s court’s ruling was “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.