The debate over felon voting took an interesting turn today when King County Superior Court Judge Michael Spearman ruled Washington state’s voter disenfranchisement laws unconstitutional. Or more precisely, in issuing a summary judgement in favor of the plaintiffs in the case of Madison v. Gregoire, he ruled the state’s re-enfranchisement laws unconstitutional.
The case involves three indigent ex-felons who petitioned the court to have their voting rights restored despite their inability to pay their “legal financial obligations.” The plaintiffs argued that by conditioning restoration of their civil rights on their ability to pay LFOs, the state had essentially levied a poll tax on ex-felons. In granting a summary judgement and ordering that they may register to vote, Judge Spearman agreed:
Thus, the court concludes that the state has not shown a rational relationship between a felon’s ability to immediately pay LFOs and a denial of the right to vote. Accordingly, the Washington re-enfranchisement scheme which denies the right to vote to one group of felons, while granting that right to another, where the sole distinction between the two groups is the ability to pay money, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Sections 12 and 19 of the Washington State Constitution and is constitutionally impermissible.
Of course the state will likely appeal, but this decision has the potential to dramatically impact the way we administer elections. The counties and the state are spending millions of dollars purging ex-felons from the voting rolls… an expensive, complicated and flawed process that now may be entirely unnecessary.
It also casts a new light on last year’s gubernatorial election contest, in which by far the largest number of disputed ballots were those alleged to be illegally cast by ex-felons. Should Madison v. Gregoire hold up on appeal, it will turn out that most of the ex-felons in question had their voting rights denied unconstitutionally.
WA’s current felon disenfranchisement laws are not only morally outrageous, they are difficult to administer and counterproductive. Secretary of State Sam Reed supports full restoration of voting rights upon release from prison, if only to simplify the voter registration process. And no less an authority than the American Correctional Institute argues that restoring voting rights helps integrate ex-felons back into society.
I had despaired that WA’s legislators lacked the fortitude to make this sensible reform in the wake of the Rossi campaign’s hype over felon voters, but now it appears that the courts may force their hands. It’s about time.