OLYMPIA – In a decision that could immediately restore voting rights to thousands of felons across the state, a King County judge on Monday struck down a law barring voting by people who’ve served their jail time but still owe fines.
“It is well-recognized that there is simply no rational relationship between the ability to pay and the exercise of constitutional rights,” wrote Superior Court Judge Michael Spearman, who ruled that the state law is unconstitutional.
One of the three plaintiffs in the case is Beverly DuBois, a Chattaroy woman who was convicted in 2002 of growing 20 marijuana plants. She insists that she was only house-sitting for a friend.
After a year in the Ferry County Jail, she was released, owing $1,800 in fines. She’s been paying it off at $10 a month, with a 12 percent annual interest rate. At that pace, it will take nearly 20 years to pay off.
“I don’t think it’s right for the state to take away our voting rights,” DuBois said Monday night from her home. “You’ve done your time, your community service and your probation.”
She’s recovering from surgery, but said she’ll sign up “as soon as I can find a voting registrar.”
In his ruling, Spearman wrote that the state failed to show why people like DuBois should be denied the right to vote. It’s illogical, he wrote, to assume that a rich person who can immediately cut a check for the fines is more law-abiding.
“Indeed,” he wrote, “the better example of respect for our justice system may very well be the indigent who manages for years to make monthly payments toward the obligation.”
DuBois and two other plaintiffs – King County’s Dan Madison and Snohomish County’s Dannielle Garner – sued the state. The American Civil Liberties Union and allied attorneys argued their case.
“Today’s ruling puts an end to this modern form of the poll tax,” Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the ACLU’s state chapter said in a statement on the group’s Web site.
All three plaintiffs, according to court documents, have served their sentences. But all three are indigent and owe court-imposed “legal financial obligations,” or “LFOs,” that will take them years to pay off.
Peter Danelo, one of the attorneys who argued on DuBois’ behalf, said that anyone in a similar situation can now legally register to vote.
The state’s assistant director of elections, Katie Blinn, said Monday night that the Secretary of State’s Office is considering whether to appeal the case.
“That (decision) really changes the line in the sand for which felons are eligible to get the right to vote restored,” she said. “And it does move it in favor of the felons.”
It’s unclear exactly how many felons are affected by Spearman’s ruling. But in a 2002 report to state lawmakers, the state Department of Corrections estimated that 46,500 felons were barred from voting purely because of failure to pay costs. The ACLU estimates that more than 250,000 people in Washington – particularly racial minorities – are barred from voting due to a felony conviction.
Monday’s court ruling halted a state effort to identify felons who are illegally voting. Letters were about to go out to suspected felon voters, warning them about state election laws.
“We’re essentially stopping where we are now and starting over,” said Blinn.
Olympia’s conservative Evergreen Freedom Foundation has campaigned for months to tighten up illegal voting by felons.
Jonathan Bechtle, director of the group’s “Voting Integrity Project” said Monday night that the group doesn’t want prison inmates voting, he said. But allowing people to vote without completely paying their fines, he said, is less of a concern. “If this case has the effect of slightly moving that mark back a bit,” he said, “I’m not going to quibble with that. But whatever that bottom line is, it needs to be enforced.”