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Originally published Sunday, January 10, 2010 at 4:00 PM

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State, not courts, should decide felon-voting rights

Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna and Secretary of State Sam Reed are right to fight a federal appeals court ruling that would let felons behind bars cast ballots.

A CURIOUS decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals undoing Washington's century-old constitutional provision that denies jailed felons the right to vote was loaded down with more sociology than jurisprudence.

Attorney General Rob McKenna and his client, Secretary of State Sam Reed, want the U.S. Supreme Court to have the final word, and the high court's review would be welcome.

In the long-running case, the 9th Circuit applied the federal Voting Rights Act to the state's felon disenfranchisement law. The defendants argued Washington's criminal-justice system was so tainted with racism that it discriminated against minorities, put disproportionate numbers behind bars, with the effect of denying their voting rights. The arguments hint at a purposeful intent of diluting minority voting strength.

If the ruling were not challenged, Reed would have to quickly devise a voting system for felons still in prison. The attorney general, in announcing plans to file an appeal, noted 47 other states beside Washington now have felon-voting laws in limbo.

Washington has stripped felons of their right to vote as a punishment on top of time behind bars. Felons of all races, colors, creeds and national origins. Denial of voting rights is intended to convey and compound the separation from civil society brought on by a felony conviction.

The law is about punishment.

If the criminal-justice system is flawed — the procedures and laws that expose a person to legal penalties — then fix it. That is a legislative job and responsibility. Mend the system through state laws.

Washington's felon-disenfranchisement law was changed to allow felons no longer in prison, but completing the terms of their sentence, to regain voting rights. State laws are best modified by local lawmakers. Not the courts.

An appeal puts McKenna back before the Supreme Court arguing the rights of the Legislature to decide to make or amend laws. Not the courts.

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