OLYMPIA, Wash. —Incarcerated felons should be allowed to vote in Washington to ensure that racial minorities are protected under the Voting Rights Act, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The 2-1 ruling by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the 2000 ruling of a district judge in Spokane. That judge had ruled that Washington state's felon disenfranchisement law did not violate the act, and had dismissed a lawsuit filed by a former prison inmate from Bellevue.
The two appellate judges ruled that disparities in the state's justice system "cannot be explained in race-neutral ways."
Of the more than 18,000 felons in state custody who could get back their right to vote under this ruling, 37.1 percent are minorities. Of that group, blacks make up the largest group, at 19.2 percent.
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The issues the ruling raises about racial bias in the justice system are not unique to Washington state, said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., group promoting sentencing reform.
"They are issues that permeate the justice system and are relevant in every state," he said, adding that an estimated 5.3 million people nationwide are ineligible to vote because of felony convictions.
Tuesday's ruling affects only Washington state but could be the basis for litigation in any area covered by the 9th Circuit — Oregon, Idaho, Montana, California, Nevada, Arizona, Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and the Northern Marianas, said Janelle Guthrie, spokeswoman for Attorney General Rob McKenna.
Guthrie said McKenna is weighing the state's next step. The state could either ask a larger group of judges from the 9th Circuit to reconsider the ruling or go straight to the U.S. Supreme Court, she said. If it appeals, the state likely would seek a stay on inmates' ability to vote until the case is resolved.