In 1996, Muhammad Shabazz Farrakhan and five other minority race felons challenged the Constitutionality of Washington's felon disenfranchisement act, alleging minorities are disproportionately prosecuted and sentenced to prison, and that their automatic disenfranchisement violates the federal Voting Rights Act.
At that time, Washington law provided that convicted felons lost the right to vote upon conviction, and did not get it back until their civil rights were restored. Civil rights, at that time, were restored only upon completion of all terms of a criminal sentence, including any time in custody, period of supervision, community service, and the payment of legal/financial obligations.
In 2009, the Legislature amended to state law to restore the right to vote provisionally to any convicted felons who are no longer in prison, and who are no longer under active supervision by the Department of Corrections. Numerically, the group of people whose voting rights were restored under this legislation composed a significant majority of all convicted felons.
After the 2009 law, the only felons still denied the right to vote were those actually in prison or who were living in the community under supervision of the Department of Corrections.
This case was originally filed in federal district court in Spokane in 1996. When it was first heard, the district court ruled in favor of the state, upholding Washington’s felon disenfranchisement law. That decision was appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the district court and sent it back down for further consideration.
When the case was sent back to the district court, the court considered additional evidence and again ruled in favor of the State and upheld the practice of disenfranchising convicted felons. The case was then appealed for a second time to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In January 2010, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals applied the federal Voting Rights Act to Washington’s felon disenfranchisement law and overturned Washington law barring felons in prison and under community supervision from voting. The Ninth Circuit was the only court in the country to reach this conclusion. Appellate courts in several other circuits (cases out of New York, Massachusetts and Florida) reached the opposite result, concluding that the Voting Rights Act does not address voting by felons. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals chose to rehear the case en banc before an 11-member panel of the court on Sept. 22, 2010.
Attorney General Rob McKenna won this case on October 7, 2010 in a unaminous ruling with a concurring opinion, that upheld the constitutionality of Washington's felon voting ban and rejected an earlier ruling that applied the federal Voting Rights Act to Washington’s felon disenfranchisement law.
In the meantime, Washington’s current felon voting law continues to be in effect and felons who are either in prison or on community custody with the Department of Corrections remain ineligible to vote. For a full explanation of when felons regain the right to vote, visit the Secretary of State's Web site.
Copies of the court documents in this case are also available on the Secretary of State's Web site.