Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Washington State: No Restoration of Felon Voting Rights Until Fines and Restitution are Paid

On July 26, 2007, a majority of the Washington State Supreme Court held that pursuant to state law, felons must first pay all court-imposed fines and restitution before their voting rights are restored. A strong dissent agreed with the position of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that it would be unconstitutional to tie such a fundamental right to one?s ability to pay.

The Washington ACLU sued on behalf of three felons who could not vote because they could not pay, and may never be able to pay, their fines and restitution assessments. One of the three, Daniel Madison, owed $483.25 in restitution, $200 in victim assessment fees and $100 in court costs.
As a mentally disabled person, his income was limited to meager social security payments. He was able to meet his court-approved payment schedule of $15 per month and has paid $530, but the remaining balance stood in the way of reenfranchisement. The other two plaintiffs were totally disabled and living on public subsistence, with little or no ability to pay their court-ordered debt.

The ACLU and twenty amici curiae argued that there was simply no rational relationship between a person?s ability to pay and their access to basic constitutional rights such as voting. The Court?s majority, written by Justice Mary Fairhurst, disagreed, holding that ?the state clearly has an interest in ensuring that felons complete all terms of their sentence, and there it no requirement that the State restore voting rights to felons until they do so.?

Chief Justice Gerry L. Alexander penned the dissent, which noted ?As a society, we should encourage, rather than discourage, felons to rehabilitate themselves. As members of this society, we all benefit when those who have failed in the past to fully live up to their responsibilities as a citizen become full-fledged citizens who again can exercise the cherished right to vote.? Chief Justice Alexander found that voting was a ?fundamental right,? and that basing its availability solely upon one?s ability to pay violated the U.S. Constitution?s Equal Protection Clause. ?Sentencing wealthy felons to five years incarceration followed by immediate restoration of rights and sentencing poor felons to five years followed by lifetime disenfranchisement? makes this injustice apparent, he wrote.

Justice Tom Chambers, who concurred in the dissent, added that Washington?s felon disenfranchisement statute violated the state and federal constitutions because it ?discriminates against the poor.? He went on to opine that ?our state privileges and immunities clause forbids distributing fundamental rights on unequal terms.?

For the past several years the ACLU has tried, unsuccessfully, to get the legislature to change the law that imposes a modern day poll tax on indigent felons. Meanwhile, only felons who can afford to fully pay their fines and restitution are able to vote in Washington; those who lack sufficient funds remain disenfranchised. See: Madison v. State, 161 Wash.2d 85, 163 P.3d 757 (Wash. 2007).

Other source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Madison v. State