State high court to rule on felons' voting rights
The Associated Press
OLYMPIA — The voting rights of tens of thousands of released felons are now in the hands of the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments Tuesday in a case being closely watched by national voting-rights groups.
The high court is being asked to consider whether voting rights should be restored to felons who have fulfilled all terms of their sentence except court-ordered fines. State law requires felons to complete their entire sentence, including probation or parole, and satisfy all applicable financial obligations before they can resume voting. The individuals must obtain a certificate noting their voting rights have been restored.
Arguing for the American Civil Liberties Union, attorney Peter Danelo told justices that the group doesn't disagree with Washington's right to disenfranchise convicted felons, or the requirement that they pay court-ordered fines. But the right to vote should not be tied to those fines, he said.
"What this case is about is whether the state, once it decides to restore the vote to former felons, can make the right to vote turn on whether particular felons are wealthy enough to pay financial obligations immediately," he said.
It is unclear exactly how many people previously convicted of felonies are barred from voting in Washington solely because they haven't paid their fines. A 2002 state estimate calculated the figure at more than 46,000 people.
In March, a King County Superior Court judge ruled that the financial requirement violates the equal-protection clauses in the U.S. Constitution and the state constitution.
The state appealed, arguing that the right to vote is not a fundamental one for felons.
State Attorney General Rob McKenna, in his first appearance before the high court, argued that court-imposed fines are as much of a sentence as prison time and that poor felons should not be given any special consideration.
"They're required to complete all terms of their sentence," McKenna said. "Just as a rich person would have to serve all of his time in jail even if he paid his financial obligations immediately upon conviction, all felons are required to pay their legal financial obligations" before their voting rights can be restored.
He said changes to the law need to be undertaken by the Legislature, not the courts.
The ACLU of Washington's lawsuit was filed on behalf of three convicted felons: Daniel Madison of King County, Beverly DuBois of Spokane County and Dannielle Garner of Snohomish County.
All three were making regular monthly payments to the courts but were indigent and unable to pay off their fines, Danelo said.
Danelo said that indigent felons can't be punished because they can't immediately pay their fines.
"You just can't seriously argue that the state has some interest in getting blood out of a turnip," he said. "There's no rational basis to say, 'If you can't pay me, I want him not to vote, because then he'll pay me.' "
Danelo cited the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court case, Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, in which the court struck down Virginia's poll tax as unconstitutional.
Justice James Johnson noted that case was dealing with a tax levied on all qualified voters of the state. "Your people are not qualified voters," he said to Danelo.
Even though Superior Court Judge Michael Spearman ruled in its favor, the ACLU is also asking the Supreme Court to expand the scope of the ruling. His ruling mentioned felons who are unable to pay due to their "financial status." The ACLU wants voting rights to be separate of financial obligations, regardless of the person's financial status.
A written opinion could come down later this year.
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