OLYMPIA—Tens of thousands of released felons barred from voting in Washington state are at the center of a legal battle over whether unpaid fines alone should keep them from the polls.
To some, felons don't deserve the privilege of the vote until they complete all of their obligations — fines included. Others argue that creates a two-tiered voting system that punishes poor people: a modern day "poll tax."
A King County judge agreed with the latter argument, ruling on Monday that the state's law requiring that felons pay all court-ordered fines and fees before they can vote again violates the equal-protection clauses in the U.S. Constitution and the state constitution.
"The Washington re-enfranchisement scheme which excludes one group of felons from exercising the right to vote, while permitting another, where the sole distinction between them is the ability to pay money bears no rational relation to any stated or apparent governmental purpose," Superior Court Judge Michael Spearman wrote.
State law also requires felons to complete their entire sentence, probation or parole.
Attorney General Rob McKenna and Secretary of State Sam Reed — both Republicans — have said they will appeal to the state Supreme Court, and the case is being closely watched by national advocacy groups.
Political lines have already been drawn over the issue, with state Democrats saying the appeal is part of a larger plan to disenfranchise voters.
"This raises serious issues of class and race," said state Democratic Chair Dwight Pelz. "An appeal of Judge Spearman's ruling is a repugnant attempt to stop people from voting and we will vigorously fight it."
More than 250,000 ex-felons are ineligible to vote — about 3.7 percent of the state's population — according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. It is unclear how many are barred solely because they haven't paid their fines; a state estimate four years ago calculated it to be more than 46,000.
Washington's neighbor, Oregon, automatically restores voting rights to felons once they've completed their sentences.
But state Republicans say Washington state is obligated to make sure felons complete their entire sentence, including all monetary obligations.
"There is a penalty for committing a felony and you need to comply with those penalties — and, if you do so, you get your right to vote restored," said state GOP Chair Diane Tebelius.
McKenna said his decision to appeal was based not on politics but on upholding current law.
"The policy makers in this case are in the state Legislature," McKenna said. "Our role is to defend their policy decision."
McKenna has not yet decided whether to seek a stay to block ex-felons from seeking to register to vote during the appeal.
An estimated 5.3 million people nationwide are ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction, according to The SentencingGroup,a Washington,D.C.-based advocacy group. How many of those felons are unable to get their rights back due to financial obligations is unclear.
The ACLU's lawsuit was on behalf of three convicted felons: Daniel Madison of King County, Beverly DuBois of Spokane County and DannielleGarnerof Snohomish County.
All three were making regular monthly payments but were indigent and unable to pay off their fines, according to court records.
For DuBois, convicted on a marijuana charge in 2002, the $10 a month she has been paying since her release in 2003 doesn't even cover the interest. Her $1,600 fine has increased to nearly $2,000.
DuBois, a Republican, said she hopes that the case is settled in time for her to vote in this year's statewide elections.
"I was really excited and then I got the wind out of my sail," Dubois said. "I don't want to get my hopes up real high and have them dashed."
Meanwhile county auditors are beginning to receive inquiries from people who want to fill out registration forms, although the numbers haven't been overwhelming.
In Thurston County, just two requests have been received.
"As of right now we are allowing them to complete the application," said Keith Mullen, the county's assistant manager of elections, "but we're not going to enter them into the system until we receive a legal clarification."
Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, is not part of the appeal.
In a written statement after the ruling, Gregoire said that while convicted felons still have a responsibility to their debt, "Once they have served their time, withholding certain rights due to fines becomes a virtual debtors' prison."
Felon voters were central to the Republican challenge to Gregoire's 2004 election, which focused heavily on votes cast by felons who hadn't had their rights restored.
A judge ultimately upheld Gregoire's election, but he identified 1,678 illegal votes, many of them by felons. There was no way to tell which candidate got those votes.
"Voters in this state are a little skeptical about elections right now," Tebelius said. "Decisions like this rip open the wound that was there since the 2004 election."
National groups are now watching what happens in the Washington case.
"It's controversial because people have an image of crime and punishment that makes them want to continue one's time and debt to society," said Monifa Bandele, national field director for Right to Vote, a New York-based advocacy group. "This is about democracy, it's not about crime and punishment."
— The Associated Press