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Appeals court turns down prison voting

State isn’t racially biased, 9th Circuit says

OLYMPIA – Washington state does not discriminate against minorities by denying prison inmates the right to vote, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today.

In an 11-0 ruling Secretary of State Sam Reed called “a significant victory,” the appeals court said there was no evidence a law that dates back nearly 150 years intentionally discriminates against minorities.

Early this year, a three-judge appeals court panel overturned state law when it ruled against the dismissal of a 1996 lawsuit arguing felons in prison and on work release should have a right to vote.

But an 11-member panel revisited the case last month and reversed that ruling.

“We were pleasantly surprised with how quickly we received the decision,” State Attorney General Rob McKenna said.

Washington doesn’t allow felons to vote unless they have their rights restored, and attorneys argued that’s discriminatory against minorities, whose percentage of the prison population is greater than the population in general.

But The Voting Rights Act of 1965 can’t be used to overturn laws that keep felons from voting without some clear evidence that those laws were designed to discriminate, the panel said. Muhammad Shabaz Farrakhan and five other inmates presented statistical evidence that racial disparities exist in the criminal justice system, but not that their convictions were a result of intentional discrimination.

There was also no evidence that the law requiring felons to get their rights back before voting was enacted with the goal of disenfranchising minorities. In fact, laws in Washington denying the vote to felons go back to 1866, a century before the Voting Rights Act passed.

Laws banning felons from voting are common in most states. If Congress was concerned about that as racial discrimination, it could have addressed it when passing the law in 1965 or amending it in 1982, the court said.

McKenna predicted that this ruling would end the case. Although Farrakhan could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, it may be difficult to get a hearing at that court with an 11-0 ruling from the 9th Circuit and several similar decisions from other circuits, he said.