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Madison v. Washington

This case challenges a Washington State law preventing people with felony convictions who cannot pay their legal financial obligations from regaining their right to vote.

Published: July 26, 2007

Madison v. Wash­ing­ton
Voting After Crim­inal Convic­tion

The Bren­nan Center filed an amicus brief in Madison v. Wash­ing­ton, a case chal­len­ging a state law that prevents people with felony convic­tions who cannot pay their legal finan­cial oblig­a­tions from regain­ing their right to vote. The Center filed the brief with the Wash­ing­ton Supreme Court in support of plaintiffs/respond­ents and on behalf of itself, several civil rights organ­iz­a­tions and three Wash­ing­ton minor­ity bar asso­ci­ations.

Madison v. Wash­ing­ton chal­lenges the provi­sion of Wash­ing­ton’s felony disen­fran­chise­ment stat­ute which condi­tions the restor­a­tion of voting rights on a person’s full payment of all court-ordered fees, fines, and resti­tu­tion asso­ci­ated with a felony convic­tion (called legal finan­cial oblig­a­tions or “LFOs").  Plaintiffs, repres­en­ted by the ACLU of Wash­ing­ton, contend that the state’s law illeg­ally condi­tions the right to vote on a person’s abil­ity to pay and there­fore viol­ates the equal protec­tion clause of the U.S. Consti­tu­tion and the priv­ileges and immunit­ies clause of the Wash­ing­ton consti­tu­tion. 

In effect, the chal­lenged provi­sion leads to the perman­ent disen­fran­chise­ment of people who are unable to pay off their LFOs.  For instance, plaintiff Beverly DuBois is unable to work due to a perman­ent disab­il­ity and now lives on food stamps and monthly disab­il­ity payments.  On her fixed income, Ms. Dubois cannot afford monthly payments suffi­cient to cover even the interest that accrues on her LFOs, so that her total debt contin­ues to increase even as she makes the required payments.  Under Wash­ing­ton’s system, indi­vidu­als like Ms. DuBois will never regain their right to vote.

In March 2006, the King County Super­ior Court of Wash­ing­ton struck down the provi­sion which condi­tions the right to vote on the payment of LFOs.  The state appealed the decision, and the case was heard by the Wash­ing­ton Supreme Court on June 27, 2006.

The Bren­nan Center brief argues that Wash­ing­ton’s felony disen­fran­chise­ment law is one of the harshest in the nation, and thus in the world.  The brief reviews national and inter­na­tional laws and crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment rates, summar­izes the history of racial discrim­in­a­tion that taints the prac­tice in this coun­try, reveals the law’s dispar­ate impact on the state’s minor­ity communit­ies, and argues that wealth qual­i­fic­a­tions for voting are uncon­sti­tu­tional.

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