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Restoring the Right to Vote in Washington

Nancy Abudu,
Director of Legal Operations,
ACLU of Florida
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January 8, 2010

This week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the state of Washington’s law barring individuals with felony convictions from voting is a clear violation of the Voting Rights Act because the law has a racially discriminatory effect on minorities and results in the denial of their right to vote purely on the basis of their race or color. The ruling in Farrakhan v. Gregoire is a long overdue victory for what has been an uphill battle in getting the courts to recognize that there is an irrefutable connection between racial bias in the criminal justice system and the impact felon disfranchisement laws have on minority communities.

In reaching its decision, which cited an American Civil Liberties Union amicus brief , the court noted the overwhelming evidence regarding the disproportionate and alarming rates at which minorities are arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to prison for committing crimes when whites, who commit the same offenses or even worse, are nowhere near as likely to suffer the same consequences.

Felony disfranchisement laws have a serious and disproportionate effect on the voting power of minority communities, and the court’s decision serves as a searing indictment on the state of Washington’s criminal justice system. The history of felon disfranchisement in this country shows that the notion of “white privilege” has never been limited to civil arenas such as employment, education and housing, but also carries over into the criminal realm. We as a society cannot ignore the fact that racial discrimination in the criminal justice system derives, at least in some part, from the racial bias of those charged with enforcing our criminal laws, namely law enforcement officers, prosecutors and even judges.

This case most likely will go to the Supreme Court and, understandably, there is some concern about how the court will rule. Yet, even though the Supreme Court is the last stop on the litigation trail, it is not the last avenue for addressing this issue. Communities must demand that their legislators address this issue. Just as there are collateral consequences for having a criminal conviction, criminal convictions in and of themselves are often a consequence of continuing racism in our country. For now though, we as civil libertarians should celebrate this victory and use this case as momentum to push for fairness and greater equality in all aspects of our society.

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