Friday, January 8, 2010

Felon Disfranchisement is Voting Rights Violation - Appeals Court Says Justice System "Infected" With Racism

There is news in the area of voting rights for formerly incarcerated people. On January 5th, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that felon disfranchisement is a direct violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The court case, Farrakhan v. Gregoire, overturned previous court decisions on barring ex-felons from voting as judges said that the vast racial disparities in the criminal justice system in the State of Washington were a significant, institutional barrier to the right to vote for people of color.

The ACLU filed an amicus brief in the case because in the state of Washington, as well as in Wisconsin and around the country, taking away a citizen’s right to vote based on a past conviction has a racially discriminatory effect in a system that locks up a disproportionate number of minorities.

The court found among many other things that the state of Washington's criminal justice system was "infected" with racial discrimination. That’s a strong statement. The numbers of disproportionate minority incarceration don’t lie: In Washington, three percent of the population is African American, but 29% of their offenders are black. In Wisconsin, around five percent of our population is African American while 39% of our offenders are black.

Worst case scenarios are in Kentucky and Virginia where people never get their right to vote back, even after finishing their parole and probation. The ACLU of Virginia was among the organizations that demonstrated this week and called for an executive order to end the discriminatory policy.

The reasons for disproportionate minority incarceration are complicated, but denying ex-felons the right to vote is un-American and anti-democratic. Plain and simple. You can read the court’s opinion and you can find the ACLU amicus brief online. The ruling got some coverage in the Seattle Times and in the Seattle PI.

Our Wisconsin state legislature will start its January session on the 19th and it is a good time to remind them about how important this issue is for voting rights in our state. Call your state legislator today and remind them why the Wisconsin Democracy Restoration Act needs to be passed immediately. If you would like to volunteer for this issue, contact the ACLU of Wisconsin. Find out more about the ACLU's work on voting rights.