October 18, 2008 in City

KIRO-TV reports many criminals vote

Story claims ineligible felons go undetected
By RACHEL LA CORTE Associated Press
 

OLYMPIA – The state’s new voter database appears to be falling short in one area: ineligible felons convicted before 2006.

The database, launched in January 2006, consolidated all 39 separate county systems. It’s cleaned more than 450,000 duplicate registrations, dead people or ineligible felons from the rolls.

But KIRO-TV reported this week that nearly 24,000 criminals are active voters, including many felons who shouldn’t be voting. Felons aren’t allowed to vote in Washington until they complete their sentence and have their rights legally restored.

KIRO investigative reporter Chris Halsne said he ran raw data from the state Department of Corrections against the state’s list of active voters.

“I can’t give anyone an absolute number on how many of those felons are ineligible,” Halsne said Thursday. “But the secretary of state’s office can’t either.”

State Elections Director Nick Handy said the TV station was using unreliable data and didn’t take into account that many of those people on the list may have ultimately been convicted of lesser charges or have had their rights restored.

“It’s unreliable, it’s inaccurate, and it’s no basis on which the state should be taking a person’s civil rights away,” Handy said.

But Handy acknowledged that it’s impossible to know how many of the registered felons in question are legally allowed to vote.

“There has been no system in place in the last 50 years to track people whose rights have been restored,” he said. “There is no list. There is no agency that tracks this information.”

Handy said the state database is able to track people who are currently in prison, or who are still under supervision by the state Department of Corrections. But people who haven’t yet had their rights restored, often because of things like unpaid court-ordered fines, are harder to track.

“The current description of who can’t vote is an impossible group to define,” Handy said.

Handy said legislative guidance is needed. Bills brought forth in the Legislature in past years to address the issue haven’t gone anywhere, he said.

“This is a problem,” Handy said. “We need policy direction. We need a bright line on which felons can vote and can’t vote.”

The state voter database brought Washington into compliance with the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which required better voting systems, improved voter access and statewide voter registration lists by Jan. 1, 2006.

Since then, more than 450,000 voter registrations were canceled; of those, 11,610 were felon registrations. The rest were dead people, duplicate registrations, and voters who had moved to another state, asked to be removed or had not voted in the years covering two federal general elections.

Handy said KIRO sent the secretary of state a portion of the data it ran, about 6,000 names.

He said more than 99 percent were people who were no longer under DOC supervision. Handy added that 24 percent of the names were people charged with felonies, but pleaded down to misdemeanors, meaning they never lost their voting rights.

An additional 28 percent had their rights restored before they left DOC supervision, and it’s impossible to know how many had their rights restored at a later time, Handy said.

Halsne noted that he was able to find out whether felons had their rights restored in a few cases that he followed up on.

“They have to go do some work. They’ve made a policy decision that they’re not going to do that,” he said.

But Handy said the state has had to work within constrictions of both the law and challenges to that law.

In March 2006, a King County Superior Court judge ruled that the requirement that felons repay court fines before voting again violates the equal protection clauses in the U.S. Constitution and the state constitution. While the case was being appealed to the state Supreme Court, state elections officials only removed those who were still in prison or under DOC supervision.

Last year, the state Supreme Court overturned the King County ruling, finding that felons who serve their full prison terms still must pay their court-ordered legal fines before voting again.

It’s not clear how many felons currently are barred from voting just because of unpaid fines. State figures from 2002 show more than 46,000 people were subject to that rule.

Jonathan Bechtle, an attorney for the conservative Evergreen Freedom Foundation, said Reed should have started looking for those felons once the Supreme Court made its ruling.

“His duty is to at least attempt it,” Bechtle said. “A lot of these felons are not eligible to vote. We don’t want thousands of ineligible votes cast in this election.”

The issue of felon voters was raised in the 2004 governor’s race, where Gov. Chris Gregoire beat Republican Dino Rossi by 133 votes after two recounts and an unsuccessful Republican court challenge.

The judge in that court challenge found that 1,678 illegal votes were cast in the election, but said there was no evidence of how all those illegal voters marked their ballots. Rossi and Gregoire are in a tight race this year in a rematch of that race.

© Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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