If you're a felon, Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna wants to make sure you can't vote until you're no longer under the jurisdiction of the state.
This week, the state's top law enforcement officer traveled to San Francisco to argue before an 11-member panel of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to strike down a January 2010 decision that found the state's prohibition on prisoner suffrage violated the Voting Rights Act.
The case, Farrakhan v. Gregoire, was brought by five felons in 1996, argued that because African Americans are disproportionately arrested, disproportionately prosecuted and disproportionately imprisoned compared to Whites in the United States, that stripping prisoners of voting rights is a de facto return to Jim Crow.
The United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world and African Americans are disproportionately represented behind bars, mostly for drug crimes, despite using drugs at a lower rate of their population than Whites, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. About two-thirds of prisoners in state prisons are Black or Latino, according to the Bureau of Justice.
To put the racial impact of incarceration in context, Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, says there were 100,000 Blacks in prison when Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Now, there are 900,000.
McKenna says he finds the additional punishment of voting restriction to be fair.
"When felons choose to commit their crimes, they choose to forfeit certain valuable rights upon conviction—among them the right to vote," McKenna said. "Our nation has a long history of denying the right to vote to those who choose to commit felonies, until they've paid their debt to society. Our state Constitution mandates felon disenfranchisement and the U.S. Constitution sanctions it in section two of the 14th Amendment. In fact, 48 states currently disenfranchise incarcerated felons."
In 2000, about 13 percent of Blacks around the United States didn't have the right to vote, according to the Prison Policy Initiative research in 2005. During the same time, 2.53 percent of non-Blacks had the same restrictions.
In the intervening decade, there is reason to believe that the number of disenfranchised felons have decreased. According to The Sentencing Project, nine state have repealed or amended the lifetime voting ban for felons, two states now allow felons on probation and parole to vote and others have made the process to restore rights easier.
Despite these reforms, The Sentencing Project estimates that about 5 million American citizens were not allowed to vote in the 2008 presidential election.
"We believe that the loss of voting rights is an appropriate and reasonable sanction for society to demand of felons while they are incarcerated or on community supervision," said Secretary of State Sam Reed. "Most states have this sensible policy. Once inmates satisfy their prison sentence and community supervision, our Legislature has recently provided that they may apply to have their voting rights restored as part of reintegrating back into the community."
But why shouldn't prisoners be allowed to vote? And why should prisoners have to wait until they aren't under "community supervision" to have their voting rights restored. Often, say prison industry reform groups, the process for restoring voting rights is complicated. In fact, in Reed's quote above, he mentions the process for a felon to "apply" for their voting rights; on the Secretary of State's own website, it does not give information on how this application process occurs.
In Oregon, a felon can vote so long as they are not incarcerated.