SEATTLE—In January, a split panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a 2-1 ruling in Farrakhan v. Gregoire, overturning Washington’s felon disenfranchisement law, holding that it violates the federal Voting Rights Act and granting convicted felons in Washington the right to vote from prison and while on community supervision.
On Saturday, State Attorney General Rob McKenna leaves for San Francisco to prepare for and deliver Tuesday’s oral arguments, aiming to persuade an 11-member en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit to reject the earlier decision and align with their peers in three other circuit courts of appeals.
“When felons choose to commit their crimes, they choose to forfeit certain valuable rights upon conviction—among them the right to vote,” McKenna said. “our nation has a long history of denying the right to vote to those who choose to commit felonies, until they've paid their debt to society. Our state Constitution mandates felon disenfranchisement and the U.S. Constitution sanctions it in section two of the 14th Amendment. In fact, 48 states currently disenfranchise incarcerated felons.
“The 9th Circuit improperly applied the [f]ederal Voting Rights act to felon disenfranchisement. We hope they’ll reconsider and join the three other federal circuit courts which have upheld these laws,” he said.
“We believe that the loss of voting rights is an appropriate and reasonable sanction for society to demand of felons while they are incarcerated or on community supervision,” said Secretary of State Sam Reed. “Most states have this sensible policy. Once inmates satisfy their prison sentence and community supervision, our Legislature has recently provided that they may apply to have their voting rights restored as part of reintegrating back into the community.
“We look forward to the courts giving some finality to this question, which has been in litigation in our state since 1996,” he said.
In 1996, Muhammad Shabazz Farrakhan and five other minority race felons challenged the constitutionality of Washington's felon disenfranchisement act, alleging minorities are disproportionately prosecuted and sentenced to prison, and that their automatic disenfranchisement violates the federal Voting Rights Act.
In January 2010, after 14 years of litigation, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals applied the federal Voting Rights Act to Washington’s felon disenfranchisement law and overturned Washington law barring felons in prison and under community supervision from voting.
The Ninth Circuit is the only court in the country to reach this conclusion. Appellate courts in several other circuits (cases out of New York, Massachusetts and Florida) have reached the opposite result, concluding that the Voting Rights Act does not address voting by felons.
The Ninth Circuit has since agreed to rehear the case “en banc”—or before an 11-member panel. Attorney General Rob McKenna is scheduled to argue the case at 2 p.m. on Sept. 21.
For a full explanation of when felons regain the right to vote, visit the Secretary of State's Web site.
Copies of the court documents in this case are also available on the Secretary of State's Web site.
For more information contact:
- Janelle Guthrie, AGO Communications Director, 360-584-3046 (cell)
- Dave Ammons, Secretary of State Communications Director, 360-902-4140