Last updated on: 4/13/2009 | Author:

Major Legal Cases Affecting Felon Voting

  1. Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, 1966
  2. Otsuka v. Hite, 1966
  3. Green v. Board of Elections, 1967
  4. Dillenburg v. Kramer, 1972
  5. Richardson v. Ramirez, 1974


  1. City of Mobile (Alabama) v. Bolden, 1980
  2. Hunter v. Underwood, 1985
  3. Farrakhan v. Washington, 2003
  4. Danielson v. Dennis, 2006
  5. Madison v. Washington, 2007


1. Harper v. Virginia Board Of Elections
U.S. Supreme Court, 383 U.S. 663 Mar. 24, 1966
Harper and co-defendants filed suit against the state of Virginia, alleging it was a violation of the U.S. Constitution for the state to require payment of state-imposed voting taxes (aka “poll tax,” designated to pay for “services”) prior to voting.

The District court dismissed the case. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed in favor of Harper et al., noting that voter qualifications have nothing to do with wealth or paying taxes or fees.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that “the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment restrains the States from fixing voter qualifications which invidiously discriminate” has been cited as meaning that if a felon disenfranchisement law “invidiously discriminates,” it should be ruled unconstitutional.

“Held: A State’s conditioning of the right to vote on the payment of a fee or tax violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment…

While the right to vote in federal elections is conferred by Art. 1, 2, of the Constitution, the right to vote in state elections is nowhere expressly mentioned… For it is enough to say that once the franchise is granted to the electorate, lines may not be drawn which are inconsistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment…

We conclude that a State violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment whenever it makes the affluence of the voter or payment of any fee an electoral standard.

Voter qualifications have no relation to wealth nor to paying or not paying this or any other tax. Our cases demonstrate that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment restrains the States from fixing voter qualifications which invidiously discriminate … [W]e must remember that the interest of the State, when it comes to voting, is limited to the power to fix qualifications.”

Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, pp. 1-4


2. Otsuka v. Hite
California Superior Court, 64 Cal. 2d 594 May 24, 1966
Katsuki James Otsuka, et al., filed a Class Action suit against the California Registrar of Voters, Benjamin S. Hite, etc., for refusing to register them to vote due to their prior convictions as conscientious objectors. The refusal to register the plaintiffs to vote was based on California’s constitution barring voters convicted of “infamous crimes.”

The California Superior Court ruled that Otsuka et al. should be permitted to register to vote, and that California’s list of “infamous crimes” was too broad, and should be narrowed to “moral corruption and dishonesty.” As a result of this case all California counties attempted to bar from voting those convicted of “moral corruption and dishonesty.”

“After reviewing the history and purpose of this ground of voter disqualifications we have concluded that to preserve its constitutionality it must be limited to conviction of crimes involving moral corruption and dishonesty, thereby branding their perpetrator a threat to the integrity of the elective process. Plaintiffs’ crime was not ‘infamous’ as thus construed, and hence the judgment is reversed….

In ruling on the validity of state-imposed restrictions on this fundamental right the United States Supreme Court has in effect tended to apply the principle that the state must show it has a compelling interest in abridging the right, and that in any event such restrictions must be drawn with narrow specificity….

Viewed in this light, serious constitutional difficulties appear when the disfranchising provision of article II, section 1, is applied to these plaintiffs.”

Otsuka v. Hite, pp. 2-3


3. Green v. Board of Elections New York Supreme Court, 380 F.2d 445  June 13, 1967 Gilbert Green, a felon convicted of conspiracy “to organize the Communist Party as a group to teach and advocate the overthrow and destruction of the government by force and violence,” filed suit in New York Supreme Court challenging his disenfranchisement.

The New York Supreme Court ruled in Green v. Board of Elections that there is nothing unreasonable or unconstitutional about criminal disenfranchisement statutes.

Green was challenging the New York law that stated that no person “convicted of a felony in a federal court of an offense of which such court has exclusive jurisdiction, shall have the right to register for or vote at any election unless he shall have been pardoned or restored to the rights of citizenship by the president of the United States.”

The New York Supreme Court ruled that “a man who breaks the laws he has authorized his agent to make for his own governance could fairly have been thought to have abandoned the right to participate in further administering the compact… It can scarcely be deemed unreasonable for a state to decide that perpetrators of serious crimes shall not take part in electing the legislators who make the laws…”

Green v. Board of Elections, 1967

“While this is ample to demonstrate to us the obvious lack of merit in Green’s contentions we have yet to mention the point on which New York most heavily relies — the provision in § 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment reducing the basis of representation of a state in the House of Representatives ‘when the right to vote at any election is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion or other crime.’ The framers of the Amendment, says the Attorney General, could hardly have intended the general language of § 1 to outlaw a discrimination which § 2 expressly allowed without the penalty of reduced representation. The argument is convincing. We see nothing in the language or in history to support plaintiff’s suggestion that ‘other crimes’ meant only a crime connected with the rebellion. The Court’s rejection of Mr. Justice Harlan’s position that § 2 is the only portion of the Fourteenth Amendment dealing with voting rights…in no way indicates it would deny that § 1 of the Amendment cannot be fairly read to prohibit a discrimination which § 2 expressly permits — especially in the light of the Justices’ frequent and consistent statements approving voting disqualification for felony.”

Green v. Board of Elections, 1967, p.7


4. Dillenburg v. Kramer
U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, 469 F.2d 1222, 1224
This case examined a challenge to Washington’s felon disenfranchisement laws on the grounds that they violated the US Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals questioned the state’s interest in disenfranchising felons, but it also noted that other courts have previously recognized the general pronouncement that a state has an interest in preventing persons who have been convicted of serious crimes from voting. The Court noted that the state interest served by disenfranchisement has never been adequately explained.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that “constitutional concepts” can change over time, and laws disenfranchising felons should evolve along with society’s modern concepts of justice and punishment.


“[The] search for modern reasons to sustain the old governmental disenfranchisement prerogative has usually ended with a general pronouncement that the state has an interest in preventing persons who have been convicted of serious crimes from participating in the electoral process … a quasi-metaphysical invocation that the interest is preservation of the ‘purity of the ballot box.’ …

Few decisions have penetrated the disenfranchisement classification to ascertain whether the offenses that restrict or destroy voting rights have anything to do with the integrity of the electoral process or whether there is any valid distinction between the class of offenses that disenfranchise and the class of offenses that do not …

[C]onstitutional concepts of equal protection are not immutably frozen like insects trapped in Devonian amber … courts have been hard pressed to define the state interest served by laws disenfranchising persons convicted of crimes … [w]hen the façade of the classification has been pierced, the disenfranchising laws have fared ill.”

Dillenburg v. Kramer, 1972, p.3


5. Richardson v. Ramirez  
U.S. Supreme Court, 418 U.S. 24
June 24, 1974
Ramirez, Lee, and Gill were denied the ability to register to vote in three California counties after completing their felony sentences. They filed suit against the California Secretary of State and other election officials, including Viola Richardson, County Clerk of Mendocino County.

California election officials relented and registered Ramirez et al. to vote. However, the case had been certified as a class action lawsuit that would effect all felons in California and was therefore permitted to continue through the courts.

The California Supreme Court ruled that the state’s felon disenfranchisement law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that California’s felon disenfranchisement law was constitutionally permissible.

Even though the U.S. Supreme Court found California’s felon disenfranchisement clause to be constitutional, the California state legislature amended its constitution on Nov. 5, 1974 to limit disenfranchisement to those people convicted of crimes when “imprisoned or on parole for the conviction of a felony.”

“Pressed upon us by the respondents, and by amici curiae, are contentions that these notions are outmoded, and that the more modern view is that it is essential to the process of rehabilitating the ex-felon that he be returned to his role in society as a fully participating citizen when he has completed the serving of his term. We would by no means discount these arguments if addressed to the legislative forum which may properly weigh and balance them against those advanced in support of California’s present constitutional provisions.

But it is not for us to choose one set of values over the other. If respondents are correct, and the view which they advocate is indeed the more enlightened and sensible one, presumably the people of the State of California will ultimately come around to that view. And if they do not do so, their failure is some evidence, at least, of the fact that there are two sides to the argument …

It is argued that disenfranchisement is necessary to prevent vote frauds. Although the State has a legitimate and, in fact, compelling interest in preventing election fraud, the challenged provision is not sustainable on that ground. First, the disenfranchisement provisions are patently both overinclusive and underinclusive. The provision is not limited to those who have demonstrated a marked propensity for abusing the ballot by violating election laws. Rather, it encompasses all former felons and there has been no showing that ex-felons generally are any more likely to abuse the ballot than the remainder of the population.”

Richardson v. Ramirez, pp. 42-43


6. City of Mobile, Alabama v. Bolden
U.S. Supreme Court, 446 U.S. 55
Apr. 22, 1980
Bolden et al. filed a class action lawsuit in Federal District Court, alleging that “the practice of electing the City Commissioners at large unfairly diluted the voting strength of Negroes in violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments” of the U.S. Constitution.

The District Court and the Court of Appeals (5th District) agreed with Bolden. The case was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that there must be “purposeful discrimination” for a voting disenfranchisement law to be found unconstitutional. Racial discrimination alone is irrelevant unless it can be shown that the intent was to racially discriminate.

This case set one of the benchmarks for future cases challenging felon disenfranchisement laws based upon racial intent.

“Only if there is purposeful discrimination can there be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. And this principle applies to claims of racial discrimination affecting voting just as it does to other claims of racial discrimination. …

Disproportionate effects alone are insufficient to establish a claim of unconstitutional racial vote dilution. Where the character of a law is readily explainable on grounds apart from race … disproportionate impact alone cannot be decisive, and courts must look to other evidence to support a finding of discriminatory purpose.”

City of Mobile Alabama v. Bolden, pp. 2-3


 7. Hunter v. Underwood
U.S. Supreme Court, 471 U.S. 222
Apr. 16, 1985
Victor Underwood, described in court documents as “a white,” and Carmen Edwards, “a black,” had been blocked from voting in Alabama because they each had been convicted of “presenting a worthless check … a crime involving moral turpitude.” They filed a class action lawsuit, claiming the disenfranchisement was intended to discriminate against blacks.

The District Court ruled against them. The Court of Appeals (11th Circuit) reversed, saying the provision “would not have been adopted in the absence of the racially discriminatory motivation.” The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, finding that the disenfranchisement provision “violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in this case struck down the provision of the Alabama Constitution that mandated voting disenfranchisement for people who committed “crimes of moral turpitude.” Whether a law was passed with a racially biased intent became a litmus test for whether a disenfranchisement law is constitutional.

“Held: Section 182 [of the Alabama constitution of 1901] violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendments … That 182 may have been adopted to discriminate against poor whites as well as against blacks would not render nugatory [worthless, futile] the purpose to discriminate against blacks…

The drafters [of Section 182] retained the general felony provision – ‘any crime punishable by imprisonment in the penitentiary’ – but also added a new catchall provision covering ‘any…crime involving moral turpitude.’ … It is alleged, and the Court of Appeals found, that the crimes selected for inclusion in 182 were believed by the delegates to be more frequently committed by blacks.”

Hunter v. Underwood, pp. 2-5


8. Farrakhan v. Washington
9th Circuit Court of Appeals, 01-35032
July 25, 2003
Muhammad Farrakhan, Marcus Price, Ramon Barrientes, Tim Schaaf, Clifton Briceno, and Al-Kareem Shadeed, all U.S. citizens residing in Washington, were all convicted of felonies. They were subsequently barred from voting in Washington. They claimed in a suit filed against the state that Washington’s felon disenfranchisement scheme “constitutes improper race-based vote denial in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.”

The State argued that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act does not apply to felons. The district court disagreed, stating it does apply, but ruled against Farrakhan et al. , stating that evidence presented of racial bias in Washington’s judicial system could not be used in determining this case.

The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act was applicable to felons, but said “the district court misconstrued the causation requirement of a Section 2 analysis.” The 9th Circuit Court also concluded that Farrakhan et al. were denied the right to vote because of the restoration process and because they had not satisfied all requirements of their sentence. They sent the case back to the district court to further argue the merits. However, before that could occur the State filed an appeal of this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court (Locke v. Farrakhan , No. 03-1597).

On Nov. 8, 2004 the US Supreme Court denied the appeal.

“Section 2 [of the Voting Rights Act] provides that a voting practice or procedure violates the VRA when a plaintiff is able to show, based on the totality of the circumstances, that the challenged voting practice results in discrimination on account of race. …

Certainly, plaintiffs must prove that the challenged voter qualification denies or abridges their right to vote on account of race, but the 1982 Amendments and subsequent case law make clear that factors outside the election system can contribute to a particular voting practice’s disparate impact when those factors involve race discrimination. …

Therefore … a causal connection may be shown where the discriminatory impact of a challenged voting practice is attributable to racial discrimination in the surrounding social and historical circumstances.”

Farrakhan v. Washington, July 25, 2003, pp.15-18


9. Danielson v. Dennis, Colorado Supreme Court, 2006 This case challenged a Colorado statute that bars persons on parole from voting or registering to vote.

The class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of approximately 6,000 Colorado parolees and argued that the statute violates the Colorado Constitution.

“In Article VII, Section 10, the Colorado Constitution provides that persons lose their right to vote when they are confined in a public prison as a result of a criminal conviction, but it also provides that their civil rights are restored automatically when they complete their ‘term of imprisonment.’”

The lawsuit argued that that persons released on parole have completed their term of imprisonment and should be allowed to vote.

“Originally filed in federal court as a class action, the lawsuit moved to state court. After the Denver District Court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument, the case was heard by the Colorado Supreme Court, which held that the challenged statute did not violate the Colorado Constitution.”

“Colorado ACLU Cases,”Danielson v. Dennis, (accessed Aug. 12, 2008)

“Article VII, section 10 provides that persons who were qualified electors prior to their imprisonment and who have served their full term of imprisonment, shall have their rights of citizenship restored to them.In dismissing the petition and complaint in this case, the District Court for the City and County of Denver ruled in favor of the Colorado Secretary of State that the statute is not unconstitutional because it does not conflict with the
constitutional provision. We agree…A person who is serving a sentence of parole has not served his or her full term of imprisonment within the meaning of this constitutional provision…”

Danielson v. Dennis, July 31, 2006, pp.3-5


10. Madison v. Washington  
Washington’s Supreme Court, 78598-8
July 26, 2007
Daniel Madison, Beverly Dubois, and Dannielle Garner, convicted felons, filed suit against the state of Washington, challenging the constitutionality of Washington’s disenfranchisement law, claiming it denies the right to vote to convicted felons who have not completed all the terms of their sentences, including full payment of their legal financial obligations (LFOs).

All convicted felons in this case had completed all of their sentences except for the payment of LFOs. They had payment plans established, which were current and still owed (approximately, with interest) as follows:


Name Monthly Payment Due
Maddison $15 $242.25
DuBois $10 $1,805.69
Garner $10 $360.00


Madison et al. felt that Washington’s requirement that all LFOs must be paid in full prior to their sentence being considered “complete” was biased against the poor. Washington’s Supreme Court disagreed, opining that as long as all felons were treated in the same way the law could not be considered biased.

“We hold that Washington’s disenfranchisement scheme does not violate the privileges and immunities clause of the Washington Constitution or the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution.

The privileges and immunities clause does reflect, in part, our framers’ concerns with ‘undue political influence exercised by those with large concentrations of wealth’ and ‘avoiding favoritism toward the wealthy.’ However, such concerns are not triggered by Washington’s felon disenfranchisement scheme because it grants the ‘privilege’ of restoration of voting rights ‘upon the same terms . . . equally . . . to all citizens.’

The Washington Constitution grants the right to vote to all Washington citizens on equal terms. Additionally, the Washington Constitution disqualifies voters on equal terms — that is, when individuals have been convicted of committing a felony. … The system of only restoring voting rights to felons who have satisfied all of the terms of their sentences, including fully paying their LFOs, does not constitute a grant of favoritism or a granting of a privilege on unequal terms … because the same standard is applied evenly to all felons seeking restoration of their voting rights.”

Madison v. Washington pp. 2-15