Five Arizona felons filed suit Thursday challenging state laws that keep them from voting because of their criminal convictions.
The lawsuit filed in federal court in Phoenix by attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union challenges a state law that denies certain rights to those who have been convicted of at least two felonies. Multiple felons are allowed to vote only if they receive permission from a judge.
Alessandra Soler Meetze, director of the ACLU’s Arizona chapter, said it’s the first lawsuit in the nation seeking to overturn a state law that automatically disfranchises felons.
The suit also challenges an Arizona law that only allows those convicted of one felony to vote after they’ve paid all court fines and restitution.
“Denying the right to vote based on one’s failure or inability to pay legal financial obligations ... serves no compelling or legitimate governmental interest,” the lawsuit states.
Meetze said there are more than 176,000 Arizonans who are being denied the right to vote because of the laws.
Aides to Gov. Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Terry Goddard both said they had not seen the lawsuit and would not comment.
The lawsuit brought on behalf of three Tucsonans and two Phoenix residents actually challenges only part of the law that bars two-time felons from voting.
Meetze said the U.S. Constitution allows states to disfranchise people convicted of treason and other “common law” crimes. Those generally are defined as offenses against people or property that always were presumed to be wrong, such as murder, rape and burglary.
But she said that does not permit the state to take away the voting rights of those convicted of offenses that are crimes solely because the Legislature determined the acts are illegal. Meetze said these most often are drug offenses, although they also include gambling and eavesdropping.
She said the ACLU believes it is bad policy to deny voting rights to people who have completed their sentences.
“We think that the system of taking away people’s voting rights actually makes it harder for people to rehabilitate themselves, get back into the community and have a voice in the community,” she said.