ACLU Argues Before Ninth Circuit That Right To Vote Be Restored To Former Felons In Arizona
Individuals With Felony Convictions Who Have Served Terms Of Prison, Parole and Probation Disfranchised For Money Owed
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PHOENIX – The American Civil Liberties Union is arguing before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today that the right to vote should be restored to people with felony convictions in Arizona who have served their terms of prison, parole and probation but are disfranchised because they owe money to the state or because they committed certain offenses not commonly considered serious felonies. The ACLU charges that requiring some individuals to bear an undue financial burden before voting is tantamount to a poll tax in violation of the constitutional right to vote and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause and is asking the court to reverse a lower court’s dismissal of the case.
“No one should be denied the right to vote because they are not affluent,” said Nancy Abudu, senior staff counsel with the ACLU Voting Rights Project. “Requiring a person with a criminal conviction to pay a fee before restoring their right to vote is nothing more than a modern day poll tax and discriminates against people on the basis of their economic status. This locks citizens out of the democratic process when it comes to issues of great concern to them. The result is that the political power of poor people is further diminished and the collateral consequences of poverty multiply.”
Under current Arizona law, individuals who commit felonies are stripped of their civil rights, including the right to vote, serve on a jury and run for some public offices. These civil rights are not restored – even after release from prison and completion of parole and probation – unless they have paid all of their legal financial obligations to the state, including docket and filing fees, court costs, restitution and costs of incarceration, including interest on these debts.
“Stripping low-income citizens of their basic right to vote has no place in a functioning democracy,” said Dan Pochoda, ACLU of Arizona Legal Director. “Even when people have completed their prison time and have been released back into society, our state puts up barriers to voting – barriers that are based strictly on economics.”
Arizona also denies the right to vote for the great number of persons convicted of drug offenses in the state. The ACLU argues that Congress only intended to allow the disfranchisement of felons convicted of serious “common law felonies” such as murder and treason and that there is no constitutional exception that would allow automatic loss of basic voting rights for drug-related crimes or other acts not considered serious felonies.
“The proportion of the population that is disfranchised by Arizona’s felon voting ban has been exacerbated in recent years by the government’s misguided ‘war on drugs,'” said Abudu. “It has become common practice across the country for states to expand the list of disfranchising felonies. The end result is that thousands of people are losing their political voice and being deliberately shut out of the democratic process.”
Arizona’s felon voting ban is one of the strictest in the nation, with one of every 23 citizens unable to vote. The state maintains the eighth highest rate of disfranchisement in the nation. An estimated 176,103 persons are disfranchised in the state as a result of a felony conviction. Forty-four percent of these persons have completed their sentences.
Attorneys on the case, Rubio et al. v. Brewer et al., are Abudu and Laughlin McDonald of the ACLU Voting Rights Project and Pochoda of the ACLU of Arizona.
For more information on the ACLU’s public education, legal and legislative efforts on ex-felon voting rights, go to: www.aclu.org/votingrights/exoffenders/index.html
A copy of the legal complaint is available at: www.aclu.org/votingrights/exoffenders/41295lgl20080219.html
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