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Supreme Court rejects Massachusetts felons' voting rights challenge

Three Massachusetts felons alleged that the commonwealth violated the Voting Rights Act when it passed a referendum stripping incarcerated felons of the right to vote.

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Massachusetts prison inmates have lost a bid to regain their voting rights after claiming that a state referendum diluted black and Hispanic political clout because of the higher proportion of minorities in the commonwealth's prison system.

The US Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear the case of three inmates who sued the Commonwealth of Massachusetts after a 2000 referendum stripped incarcerated felons of the right to vote.

The inmates filed suit in federal court claiming the action violated the federal Voting Rights Act because it had a disparate impact on the political power of minority voters across Massachusetts.

The lawsuit said the Massachusetts measure exerted a “disproportionately adverse effect on the voting rights of African Americans and Hispanic Americans compared to its effect on the voting rights of other citizens.”

This is so, the lawsuit said, because African Americans and Hispanic Americans are over-represented in Massachusetts prisons. The overrepresentation is caused, in part, by “considerable racial and ethnic bias, both direct and subtle, in the Massachusetts court system,” the lawsuit said.

The Voting Rights Act bars states from passing measures that undercut the opportunity of black and Hispanic voters to elect representatives of their choice. The law is designed to ensure that the political process is equally open to certain protected groups regardless of race or color.

The dispute began in the late 1990s when a group of Massachusetts prison inmates decided to take civic involvement to a new level. Upset over the length of their terms of incarceration, they resolved to organize a political action committee and use their collective clout to win their freedom by changing the laws that put them behind bars.

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