A state can prohibit felons from voting even if the ban disproportionately harms minorities, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday in a Washington state case that bolsters a similar law in California.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned a 2-1 decision by one of its panels in January that struck down the Washington law on the grounds that the state's criminal justice system was racially biased.
That ruling, the first of its kind in the nation, would have allowed prisoners as well as parolees to vote in Washington. It also could have invalidated laws in the eight other states in the circuit, including California, if courts found that a state's system of arresting and prosecuting suspects was racially skewed.
Every state except Maine and Vermont bars felons from voting.
In California, 283,000 felons in prison or on parole are ineligible to vote, according to a report from the nonprofit Sentencing Project. About 114,000 are African Americans, who are disenfranchised at seven times the rate of the general population, the report said.
A state appeals court upheld the California law in a separate case last year.
On Thursday, an 11-judge appeals court panel upheld the Washington law, which has remained in effect during the case.
A six-judge majority noted that other appeals courts have concluded that federal civil rights laws do not apply to a state's disqualification of felons from voting.
At the least, the judges said, minority inmates must prove that a state's law or its justice system was intentionally biased against them, and there was no such evidence in this case.
The other five judges rejected that standard, but said they were not convinced that the Washington system was infused with discrimination.
They also noted that state legislators changed the law last year to allow felons to vote when they complete parole.
The 2-1 ruling by the court panel in January found that minorities were "more likely than whites to be searched, arrested, detained and ultimately prosecuted," and that racial disparities could not be explained by differences in crime rates.