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Legislative panel urged to restore voting rights to felons sooner

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 22, 2019

Washington should change its voter laws to allow convicted felons to register as soon as they leave prison as a way of helping them return to society, a legislative panel was told Tuesday.

Under current law, they can register after they finish community supervision that can be part of their sentence after incarceration. That puts Washington “in the middle” of a wide range of voter registration laws among the states, said Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Maine and Vermont allow felons to vote even when they are incarcerated, Morales-Doyle told the Senate Government, Tribal Relations and Elections Committee. Iowa and Kentucky don’t restore voting rights to felons at all. The other 46 states have a wide range of rules for returning the right to vote.

“The fact is, people are confused as to whether they have the right to vote or not,” he said.

Cyril Walrond, an inmate at the state’s Stafford Creek Corrections Center, told the committee by phone that preventing people in community supervision from voting makes them voiceless members of the community.

“We have paid our debt to society,” said Walrond, a member of the Black Prisoners Caucus. “We are reminded every November we are not part of society.”

Julie Wise, the King County elections supervisor, agreed the law is confusing. People in jail awaiting trial are eligible to vote. Convicted felons in prison or on community custody release are not.

The law says a convicted felon’s right to vote can be revoked for failing to make payments on legal financial obligations that are part of a sentence, such as fines, fees or victim restitution payments, and on the high interest that accrues on them.

But David Elliott, a policy director for the Washington Secretary of State’s office, said he could find no examples of a registration being revoked for those reasons.

The committee is studying changes to voter registration laws in advance of the 2020 session.

Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, has a proposal to allow felons to register after they leave a Department of Corrections facility and go into community custody and stay registered as long as they comply with provisions of that custody. It would also remove the possibility of revoking the right to vote for not paying legal financial obligations, which she likened to a poll tax.

The bill passed the committee in the 2019 session but never came to a vote in the full Senate. It could be revived in next year’s short session.

Taking away the right to vote for persons convicted of “infamous crimes” has been part of the Washington constitution since before statehood, Elliott told the committee. But the Legislature can decide how to define “infamous crimes” and how to restore those rights.

Kuderer said revoking voting rights for felons became a practice in the South during Reconstruction as a way to disenfranchise freed slaves.

Some people also argue it serves as a deterrent to crime, but Christopher Poulos of the Washington Re-Entry Council doubted that. Poulos, a former felon who later became a lawyer, argued that disenfranchisement has no valid public safety purpose.

Imagine a person on his way to robbing a bank, Poulos suggested. Is he going abandon the robbery if the person with him says, “If you rob the bank, you’re not going to be able to vote in the 2020 election”?

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