Federal Appeals Court Rules That Ban on Voting Rights For Formerly Incarcerated is Racially Biased and Illegal


The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held on January 5, 2010, that Washington State’s felon disenfranchisement law violates the Voting Rights Act because it results in minorities being denied access to the polls on account of their race.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits racial discrimination in voting. Almost a quarter of otherwise qualified African American men in Washington have lost the right to vote as a result of its felon disenfranchisement law, which bars many formerly incarcerated people from voting.

In Farrakhan v. Gregoire, African American, Latino, and Native American plaintiffs presented “compelling” evidence of racial bias in Washington’s criminal justice system. For example, African Americans were over nine times more likely to be in prison than whites, even though the ratio of Black to white arrest for violent offenses was less than 4 to 1. African Americans were more than 70% more likely to be searched than whites; and Latinos were more than 50% more likely to be searched – even though searches of whites more often revealed contraband. The evidence also showed racial disparities in charging and bail recommendations, lengths of confinement, and alternative sentencing.

The federal appeals court found this evidence proves that “Washington’s criminal justice system is infected with racial bias . . . [P]olice practices, searches, arrests, detention practices, and plea bargaining practices lead to a greater burden on minorities” and these disparities “cannot be explained by factors other than racial discrimination.”

Because people automatically lose the right to vote upon conviction, the court concluded that discrimination in the criminal justice system “clearly hinders the ability of racial minorities to participate effectively in the political process” and ruled that Washington’s disenfranchisement law violates the Voting Rights Act.

Nationwide, approximately 7% of African Americans, and 13% of Black men, are unable to vote. Alabama has one of the nation’s strictest disenfranchisement regimes and one of the highest disenfranchisement rates. More than 30% of African American men in Alabama are prevented from voting by felon disenfranchisement laws.