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Bill to allow felons to get voting rights back sooner dies in Senate

Sen. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, argues during a legislative debate Wednesday that people convicted of violent crimes against law enforcement or court officials shouldn’t get their voting rights back as soon as they leave prison. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – An effort by Democratic lawmakers to allow felons to vote as soon as they leave prison, rather than after finishing their community custody, failed Wednesday evening. .

In the middle of a spirited and sometimes contentious debate on a bill to restore voting rights sooner than current law allows, Democrats abruptly moved to defer further action on the proposal.

The deferral was actually a death sentence for the proposal because, while 22 days remain in the 2020 session, Wednesday evening was the deadline for bills to pass their first chamber. As a result, deferral meant the bill can’t be brought up again in this session.

Supporters had argued for ending a form of historic discrimination; opponents said they were standing up for victims’ rights.

Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, who sponsored the bill, said she’d try again in 2021, adding “this is a game of persistence.”

The bill would have allowed a convicted felon to register to vote after he or she leaves full custody at a state Department of Corrections prison and goes into community-based custody, where they are on lighter supervision. Under current law, a felon must complete community custody before being eligible to register.

Kuderer said it would affect about 10,000 people.

Republicans tried to limit voting rights for certain felons with a number of amendments, but seemingly with limited success. They tried proposals to keep restrictions on felons who were members of street gangs or were convicted of violent offenses against court officials or law enforcement officers or who were convicted of any serious violent crime.

Sen. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, said felons who commit violent crimes against law enforcement officers and court officials shouldn’t get their voting rights back so soon.

“Cops are the guys that run toward the gunfire,” he said. “They should be differentiated in a small way.”

“You’re talking about people who have not yet paid their debt to society or their debt to victims,” Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, said. “When are we going to say, ‘At some point, victims matter’?”

Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, argued that no one who is about to commit a crime stops because they might lose their right to vote.

“Let’s not use victims for something that has nothing to do with victim safety … nothing to do with public safety, nothing to do with survivors,” Dhingra said.

The point of the bill was about fairness to people who have historically been victims of discrimination, she said. Her mention that the loss of voting rights for felons originated in Jim Crow laws – which is historically correct – brought shouts of “Point of order!” from Republicans.

Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, the presiding officer, asked everyone to be respectful and “keep collegiality.”

Republicans did succeed with an amendment to require anyone convicted of a sex crime to complete community custody before being eligible to vote.

But that later allowed them to argue the bill would be inconsistent if Democrats didn’t agree to an amendment with a similar restriction to all people convicted of serious violent felonies like murder, first-degree assault and kidnapping.

“You can kill a child, shoot a child, and have your voting rights restored” upon leaving prison, said Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale. But someone who rapes a child would have to wait until completing community custody. “How does that make any sense?” he asked.

Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, was absent, so only 48 senators were present, and when a few Democrats joined Republicans on some amendments, the resulting 24-24 ties were broken by Habib in favor of the majority Democrats.

For the amendment to delay the return of voting rights to all felons with serious violent crime convictions, Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, also was absent. That amendment failed on a 24-23 vote.

But it also indicated the vote on the overall bill would be 24-23. A bill needs 25 yes votes to pass the Senate, and Habib only votes in a tie, so it would fail.

Rather than bring it to a vote and lose, Democrats asked to end all action on the bill and adjourned for the night.