Washington state laws taking away a felon’s right to vote are unconstitutional and weaken the voting strength of African Americans, including those never convicted of crimes, a lawsuit filed in Spokane claims.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court by Muhammad Shabazz Farrakhan, a 39-year-old Bellevue export business owner who chairs the National Young Black Republicans.
Farrakhan was released from the state penitentiary in Walla Walla on March 31 after completing a three-year term for theft by deception.
He said Wednesday that taking away felons’ voting rights makes them disenfranchised and disinterested in the government, and leads to recidivism.
Earlier this week, he filed a companion federal suit in the Western District of Washington, challenging another state law that keeps felons from serving on juries.
Joining him as plaintiffs in the voting suit are state penitentiary inmate Al-Kareem Shaheed and Spokane attorney Carl Maxey.
Named as defendants are the state of Washington, Gov. Gary Locke, Secretary of State Ralph Munro and Joseph Lehman, director of the state Department of Corrections.
They had no comment on the suit.
A spokesman for the governor said felons released from prison can go through a process to get their civil rights restored.
Maxey, who has spent his life fighting for civil rights, argues that taking away a felon’s voting right reduces overall minority voting strength because minorities represent a disproportionately larger share of inmates.
“This dilution significantly reduces the power of minority communities to elect candidates of their choice,” the suit says.
A recent study, attached to the suit, says that nationwide one in seven adult black males have been imprisoned, except for the 20-29 age group where the ratio is 1-in-4.
The suit attacks as unconstitutional Article 6, Section 3 of the state constitution, which says:
“All persons convicted of infamous crime unless restored to their civil rights and all persons while they are judicially declared mentally incompetent are excluded from the elective franchise.”
“Infamous crime” is described as one punishable by death or imprisonment in a state penitentiary.
Felons are denied the right to vote even though federal law says all U.S. citizens “shall be entitled and allowed to vote without distinction of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Another federal law says states or political subdivisions cannot deny or abridge the right to vote because of race or color.
Unlike many other states, inmates in Washington can apply for the restoration of their civil rights after they have completed their prison sentences and supervision.
But the process isn’t automatic and many never apply to vote again, election officials say.
The suit also asks that inmates in the state prisons be allowed to vote.
“With that kind of empowerment, they can come to believe they are controlling their own destiny - politically and economically,” Farrakhan said.
He was an inmate at the state penitentiary in April 1996 when he drafted the initial right-to-vote suit, and filed it in U.S. District Court in Spokane.
Judge Robert Whaley reviewed the suit and decided to grant Farrakhan’s request for appointment of an attorney to help craft the complaint. Attorney Dennis Cronin, who works at the Maxey law firm, filed the amended suit last week and said 10 other inmate-plaintiffs may be added.
“We hope that it will be handled on a fast-track basis,” Cronin said.
The state attorney general’s office must respond by May 29 and a hearing on the suit could be scheduled by mid-summer.
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