Monday 01 February 2010
Federal Ninth District Circuit Court Judges A. Wallace Tashima and Stephen Reinhardt ruled on behalf of several disenfranchised voters, in a 2-1 ruling.
If plaintiffs are successful, the case could result in the restoration of voting rights to 47,000
In addition, the case could have an impact on the status of felon voting rights in other states, by opening up the path for similar lawsuits.
According to the Sentencing Project, an estimated 5.3 million
"It absolutely is a victory," Kara Gotsch, advocacy director for the Sentencing Project, told IPS. "The racial disparity that exists in the criminal justice system and discrimination is something we've been concerned about as an organisation for a long time."
"To have the court acknowledge that racial discrimination is an issue is in itself a significant finding, but the fact that this could also impact the felon voting laws is also important," Gotsch said.
As for the potential broader impact of the ruling, "One might assume that other plaintiffs might be able to prove similar claims in other states.
Not everybody saw the ruling as a victory, though. "The
"I’m pleased the attorney general will be taking this case to the
While there have been numerous legal efforts to restore felon voting rights over the last several years, this case is unique because it focuses on the racial impact of felon voting disenfranchisement as it relates to the historic Voting Rights Act (VRA).
"The ruling was based on the [argument that the] state was violating the VRA. The country has a history of racial discrimination in its voting rights laws - poll taxes and literacy tax," Gotsch said. "The concerns of racial discrimination against minorities has always been a concern in voting law because of this history. They were able to make a case that race was influencing who could vote because... there was racial discrimination in the criminal justice system."
"Minorities are disproportionately prosecuted and sentenced, resulting in their disproportionate representation among the persons disenfranchised under the
As a result,
Plaintiffs in the case are Muhammad Shabazz Farrakhan, Al-Kareem Shadeed, Marcus Price, and Timothy Schaaf, who are African American, as well as Ramon Barrientes, who is Hispanic, and
The district court had previously ruled on behalf of the State of
"We explained that a [VRA] Section 2 'totality of the circumstances' inquiry requires courts to consider how a challenged voting practice interacts with external factors such as 'social and historical conditions' to result in denial of the right to vote on account of race or color," the appeals court ruling said.
Because other federal circuit courts in other
Those decisions include the First Circuit in a
Felon voters in
Advocates and some legislators at state and federal levels are continuing to pursue other strategies to restore voting rights to felons and ex-felons.
The Democracy Restoration Act was introduced both in the
Technically, the bill would not restore voting rights in state elections, which states have discretion over. However, in practice, it may result in re-enfranchisement for state elections as well, because it may be too complicated and confusing to allow ex-felons to vote in federal but not state elections.
Due to the efforts of such organisations as the Sentencing Project, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, and others, the general trend over the last decade has been for state legislatures and governors to change their laws to allow at least some ex-felons to vote.
Since 1997, over 19 states have expanded or eased access to voting for felons or ex-felons, Gotsch noted.
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