In the United States, being convicted of a felony offense can seriously impact your ability to vote. At one extreme, two states (Kentucky and Virginia) strip convicted felons of the right to vote for the rest of their lives. At the other end of the spectrum, two states (Maine and Vermont) allow incarcerated felons the right to vote while in prison. The remaining 46 states fall somewhere in the middle, generally restricting the right to vote while serving a prison sentence or on parole. Beyond denial of access to the democratic process, harsher state laws are problematic because of the ways in which they disproportionately disenfranchise populations of color.
This past week saw a significant court decision in the area of felony disenfranchisement. In a case first brought by Muhammad Shabazz Farrakhan in 1996, challenging his inability to vote while in prison, a federal appeals court ruled that the state of Washington’s law prohibiting incarcerated felons from voting is a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a landmark civil rights law banning a series of electoral practices historically used to disenfranchise black voters. The state Attorney General has already announced his decision to appeal -- but if the ruling is “upheld by the Supreme Court, [it] would apply to all 48 states that ban voting by felons in prison or on supervision.”
According to the judge who wrote the majority opinion, the studies presented in the case "speak to a durable, sustained indifference in treatment faced by minorities in Washington's criminal justice system — systemic disparities which cannot be explained by 'factors independent of race.'” That translates into a disproportionate loss of voting rights.
Without waxing too poetic about the power of the court system, it is important to recognize the key role it plays in ensuring justice and equality for all. It will be interesting to watch this case as it moves forward; let’s hope that, in the end, our nation’s judges will choose democracy over discrimination.
(Photo by mamamusings.)