Campaign trail in jail

A federal appeals court on Tuesday tossed out Washington state’s law banning incarcerated felons from voting, finding the state’s criminal justice system is “infected” with racial discrimination.

The ruling, by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle, said the law violates the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising minority voters. The decision could impact Nevada, which is under the direct jurisdiction of the 9th Circuit.

But Washington’s 37,000 felons in prison or on community supervision might be premature in asking for their voter pamphlets. State Attorney General Rob McKenna said he will appeal — either back to a larger 9th Circuit panel, or directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Only two states — Vermont and Maine — currently allow prison inmates to vote.

The court panel may have identified some real problems. The question is whether its solution does anything to solve them.

It would be one thing if the court had ruled that a felon’s voting rights must be automatically restored the moment he leaves prison — that he should no more have to apply to have this right restored than he has to apply to have restored his right to freedom of speech or of religion.

But politicians will now be expected to campaign for the inmate vote?

If the problem is that a disproportionate percentage of young black men are in prison or otherwise losing their right to vote through run-ins with the legal system, that may indeed be worth a separate look. Is this because of nonviolent drug crimes, and the ways and locales in which the drug laws are selectively enforced?

Furthermore, no one to date has mentioned the most distressing aspect of the decision: It would appear to accept the notion that today’s world-leading American incarceration rates, and the racial makeup of those prison populations, are not a transitory phenomenon, but permanent.

And that’s disturbing.

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