Secretary of State Sam Reed has decided to appeal a King County Superior Court ruling that the state’s felon re-enfranchisement laws unconstitutionally violate the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.
Hmm. I am disappointed, and not just because I think it is the wrong decision, but because I’d hoped that Reed might be a bit more pragmatic.
In announcing his decision, Reed made a joint statement with Attorney General Rob McKenna.
“We believe a rational basis does exist for the Legislature to deny felons the right to vote until they have completed their entire court-ordered sentences, including payment of criminal penalties, victim’s restitution, and legal fees, rather than separating out various sentencing aspects,”
Maybe, maybe not. I’m not saying that Judge Spearman’s decision is a slam dunk, but it is very compelling. The practical impact of our re-enfranchisment statutes is that we have created two classes of ex-felons: those who can afford to pay off their legal financial obligations, and those who cannot. The former have their voting rights restored, the latter are banned from voting for life.
Personally, I find this morally objectionable, but it is also a distinction that has proven to be extremely troublesome and expensive to administer and enforce… a fact that Reed himself acknowledged in the midst of last year’s controversial election contest.
In Washington, Secretary of State Reed said, the simplest way to fix confusion over tracking felons would be to automatically restore voting rights when people are released from prison, regardless of whether they’ve paid all their court debts.
And yet, given the opportunity to simplify our state’s re-enfranchisement system by adopting the model used in most other states, Reed has instead chosen to spend tax dollars defending a system that is costing taxpayers millions of dollars… and with uneven results.
But there is another practical consideration that is rarely discussed.
More than 250,000 ex-felons are currently ineligible to vote in WA state, about 3.7 percent of the state’s population, and 24 percent of African American men. About 46,000 of these ex-felons would have their voting rights restored if Judge Spearman’s decision is upheld.
So… exactly what is the social benefit of denying a substantial portion of our population the right to vote?
I’ve heard opponents of re-enfranchisement passionately argue that if we fully restore the civil rights of felons upon release they would have no incentive to make restitution to their victims. But in fact, the majority of the LFOs have nothing to do restitution.
For example, one of the plaintiffs in the case, Beverly DuBois, was convicted on a marijuana charge, and was ordered to pay LFOs totaling $1,620: a $500 victim assessment fee, $110 in court costs, and $1,000 to the Stevens County Drug Enforcement Fund. Unable to work due to injuries sustained in a car accident, DuBois has nonetheless made regular payments of $10 a month since her release… a court approved payment plan that doesn’t even cover the accrued interest. Since she was convicted in 2002, her outstanding LFO has actually increased to $1,895.69, and under current law, she will never be eligible to vote again.
Reed now argues that there is a “rational basis” for denying DuBois the right to vote, but I fail to see it. A permanently disabled woman gets ensnared on a marijuana charge, serves her time in prison, but due to onerous court fees she can never afford to pay off, she permanently loses the right to vote. Meanwhile, a more affluent ex-felon convicted of a similar crime, pays off his fines and has the franchise restored.
Perhaps a higher court will ultimately rule that a system that re-enfranchises ex-felons based on their ability to pay is somehow constitutional. But it certainly isn’t fair, and it does absolutely nothing to integrate these people back into society.