For some indigent ex-felons, a recent court ruling means the legislature will probably restore their voting rights by amending state laws before they are able to by paying off their legal debts.
On July 26, the Washington State Supreme Court upheld a state law that requires convicted felons to pay off all of their court fees and fines before they may regain the right to vote. Representing the plaintiffs, who are convicted felons struggling to pay off their legally incurred debts, the ACLU of Washington argued the law was a modern form of a poll tax.
But in a 6 to 3 decision the court ruled the state legislature did not violate the state or federal constitution when it enacted the law.
Despite losing the case, ACLU of Washington spokesperson Doug Honig says the issue is not going away. He says the felon's poll tax issue has gained increased public awareness as well as support from state officials including Gov. Christine Gregoire.
"We are disappointed in the court ruling because it ignores the fact that if you don't have much money, the law affects you differently," says Honig. "It's not fair," Honig says.
The ACLU also urged the legislature to make the changes before the 2008 election.
"Our current system for restoring voting rights is so complicated and confusing that even elections officials are often unsure who is eligible to vote," says Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the local chapter of the ACLU. "The Legislature needs to fix this broken system before the 2008 presidential election."
The ACLU filed the lawsuit in October 2004. Their argument contended that forcing ex-felons to pay off their fines before they can vote, as required in the Washington Sentencing Reform Act of 1981, violates both the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Washington State Constitution.
In 2002, the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) estimated there were 46,500 Washingtonians who were prohibited from voting based solely on outstanding financial obligations, according to the ACLU lawsuit. The DOC claims there were over 25,000 felony sentences made by Washington's Superior Courts in 2001. Twenty-two percent of these felony sentences were for violent crimes, 34 percent were for drugs and the other 44 percent were for property crimes.
While the legal disagreement has been settled by the court decision, there is one thing everybody agrees on now. Both ACLU leaders and state officials agree it's now up to state legislators to make changes.
"Now it's about getting state legislature to step up to plate and fix the problem," says Honig.
"Our state legislature has determined felons should complete all the terms of their sentences before winning back the right to vote," says Reed. "It is the Legislature's place – not the courts – to decide whether or not to change state law.”