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Originally published July 27, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 27, 2007 at 2:07 AM

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Court: Felons can't vote until fines paid

The state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that felons who haven't paid their fines and court costs aren't entitled to vote. But for 16 months...

Seattle Times staff reporters

The state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that felons who haven't paid their fines and court costs aren't entitled to vote. But for 16 months they could, and now the state has no way of knowing how many might be on the rolls or how to keep them from casting ballots.

As of now, the only felons the state can accurately track — and keep off the voter rolls — are those still in custody of the Department of Corrections, according to Assistant Secretary of State Steve Excell.

"That's the only rock-solid list that we know we can implement now in the short term," he said. "We have no way of finding the felons that are voting today."

The Secretary of State's Office was working with other state agencies last year to find a way to keep better track of felons who hadn't paid off court-ordered financial obligations. But when King County Judge Michael Spearman ruled in March 2006 that the felon law was unconstitutional, the effort was put on hold. The state Supreme Court on Thursday overturned Spearman's ruling.

The case stems from convicted felons who challenged the law that says they have to complete all the terms of their sentences, including what's called legal financial obligations, before being able to vote. They argued that violated state and federal constitutional rights because it denies them the right to vote based on wealth.

Attorney General Rob McKenna argued the state's appeal himself before the Supreme Court and lauded Thursday's decision.

Washington is one of eight states that prohibit felons from voting until they make full restitution, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, which backed the felons' challenge. Writing for the court, Justice Mary Fairhurst said it's true the framers were concerned with "undue political influence exercised by those with large concentrations of wealth" and "avoiding favoritism toward the wealthy." But Washington's felon-disenfranchisement law doesn't conflict with that, she wrote.

"The Washington Constitution grants the right to vote to all Washington citizens on equal terms," the opinion said. "Additionally, the Washington Constitution disqualifies voters on equal terms — that is, when individuals have been convicted of committing a felony. Finally, Washington's statutory disenfranchisement scheme provides for the restoration of voting rights to felons on equal terms — that is, only after individuals have satisfied all of the terms of their sentences."

Beverly Dubois figures that means she may never vote again in the state of Washington.

"I'm pretty disappointed," said Dubois, 51, one of the plaintiffs. "It's an unfair law."

She served nine months for growing marijuana and finished her sentence in 2003 but has been unable to pay off her debt. "I agreed as part of my release that I could pay $10 a month, which is all I can afford," said Dubois, who lives on $600 a month in disability payments.

But she's been unable to pay off the full amount and the interest keeps adding up. "Right now I owe over $1,900 and I started out owing $1,610," she said.

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Fairhurst wrote that it's up to the Legislature "to determine the best policy approach for re-enfranchising Washington's felons."

Doug Honig, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which represented the felons, said the organization has worked for several years to get the law changed in Washington and there has been growing support in the Legislature to do that.

"To say that a citizen can vote when they pay off all their fines, basically says that if you have more money you'll be able to vote and that if you don't you won't, or it will be a long time until you can," Honig said. "We refer to this as a modern form of a poll tax."

Gov. Christine Gregoire has expressed her support for changing the law. After the Superior Court ruling she issued a statement that said that while convicted felons still have a responsibility to their debt, "once they have served their time, withholding certain rights due to fines becomes a virtual debtors' prison."

Gregoire's office had no comment on Thursday's decision.

Five opinions were released by the court. The majority opinion was signed by Fairhurst, Susan Owens and Bobbe J. Bridge. There was a concurrence by Barbara Madsen, a concurrence by James Johnson, a dissent by Chief Justice Gerry Alexander and a dissent by Tom Chambers.

"As a society, we should encourage, rather than discourage, felons to rehabilitate themselves," Alexander wrote. "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. We should all rejoice when they achieve that goal."

David Postman: 360-236-8267 or dpostman@seattletimes.com; Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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