April 1, 2009 in Opinion

Our View: Released felons shouldn’t have to pay to vote

 

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After serving a prison sentence in Washington state, felons with enough money to quickly pay off fines can vote. The poorer ones must wait. It doesn’t make much sense to tie the right to vote to the ability to pay.

In 2006, a King County judge ruled that felons must be allowed to vote once they’ve completed their sentences. But the state Supreme Court overruled, saying the restriction based on fines does not violate the state Constitution. So addressing the unfairness falls to the state Legislature.

The House has passed a bill that would decouple debts from the restoration of voting rights. The bill now resides in the Senate. Washington state has more stringent restrictions on the restoration of rights than 40 other states. In Oregon, for example, voting rights are restored once a felon is released from prison.

Some lawmakers disagree with that idea, saying that fines are a part of the sentence. If that’s the case, then we have a system where some felons are able to shorten their sentences based on how much money they have. Felons who take longer to pay off fines already end up paying more because of interest charges. Withholding their voting rights goes too far.

Secretary of State Sam Reed brings up another good reason to support the bill: It would make it easier to clean up voter rolls.

His office is able to track when people are in the corrections system, whether incarcerated or on probation, but it is difficult to discern when fines have been paid off and rights have been restored.

The state isn’t sure how many people are in this voting-rights limbo, because no such list is kept. A law that erased that distinction would be a boon to the credibility of elections, especially in a state that has endured so many controversies over legal votes and legal voters.

It’s easy to disregard the basic rights of people who have committed crimes. Speaking up for them isn’t popular. But putting a price tag on rights undermines their value. We should be looking for ways to encourage civic engagement, not continuing the punishment and ostracism after sentences have been served.

As Reed has said, “When people have served their time and are out of prison, we want them to get involved in their community and get connected.”

As a matter of fairness and practicality, the Legislature should restore voting rights as soon as possible.


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