OLYMPIA – While Washington has some of the most liberal election laws in the nation when it comes to registering online and voting by mail, it has one provision that voting rights activists say ranks with some of the most restrictive states for banning thousands of otherwise eligible residents.
Felons lose their voting rights if sent to prison and don’t get them back until they leave incarceration and finish community supervision, which some people refer to as “parole.” After having those rights restored, they can lose them again if a court determines they are willfully refusing to make payments on any legal financial obligations, such as restitution to victims’ rights funds.
“Felony disenfranchisement is one of the last remaining barriers to voting in Washington,” said Jaime Hawk of the ACLU’s Washington Chapter.
An estimated 20,000 people in Washington are barred from voting because they are in community custody, she said.
Attempts to change the law by allowing felons to be eligible to vote as soon as they leave incarceration failed last year. But a coalition of supporters, which include prosecutors, election officials and advocates for programs that try to reintegrate former prisoners into the community, have another push this year.
They also have a unique champion sponsoring the House bill, newly elected Rep. Tarra Simmons, a Bremerton Democrat, lawyer, civil rights activist and the first former felon ever elected to the Legislature. She was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 20 months for a pair of drug charges and unlawful possession of a firearm.
“This bill is very personal to me as a person who lost my right to vote as a result of a felony conviction,” she told a recent hearing of the House State Government Committee.
After her release, she got a law degree from Seattle University, won a Supreme Court fight to take the bar exam, became a lawyer, and worked with programs helping felons re-enter society and on sentencing reform. All of that, and her ability to win her legislative seat, is tied to her ability to re-enter society and become a voter again.
Allowing a convicted felon to vote after leaving prison would restore some dignity to that person, who is likely struggling to find a job and fit back into society, Simmons said. It has no public safety risk but could have public benefits by reducing recidivism, she said.
Simmons’ chief co-sponsor is Rep. Jesse Young, a conservative Gig Harbor Republican, who told the panel the issue touches a part of his heart as a Christian: “How can you say someone shouldn’t have a second chance?” he added.
The bill had a range of supporters testifying virtually from around the state, including Amber Letchworth. A Spokane Valley resident and formerly incarcerated felon, she now works with the organization I Did the Time to help incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. When she was released from prison, Letchworth said, she was on community supervision for two years and couldn’t register to vote, although she worked with groups encouraging others to register.
Sahar Fathi, of the state attorney general’s office, said the current restrictions on felons not being able to vote until they finish community custody disproportionately affects African Americans, who are 18% of the prison population while only 4% of the state’s overall population. Attorney General Bob Ferguson supports the legislation, although he does not support allowing felons to vote while they are in prison, she said.
Kurtis Robinson, former president of the Spokane Chapter of the NAACP and executive director of I Did The Time, said the refusal to allow felons to vote is a vestige of racism, and urged legislators to “move out of implicit and explicit biases.”
The ACLU’s Hawk, who researched felon disenfranchisement for a recent law review article, said the laws have their roots in the Jim Crow South, when Black Americans were often arrested and convicted by white judges and juries, and then permanently barred from voting.
Until 11 years ago, a convicted felon in Washington was required to get a certificate of discharge and pay off all fines and fees that were accruing with annual interest of up to 12%, then go back to court to get his or her voting rights restored. The law was changed to allow registration after a felon was no longer in the custody of the Department of Corrections, but that includes time under department supervision in community custody that can be for years after incarceration.
Allowing a person to register to vote after being released from prison would simplify the registration process, county auditors said. Currently, a person must say whether they’ve been convicted of a felony and completed community custody to get “provisional” restoration of voting rights, which can be revoked if that person fails to keep up with financial obligations, although such an action by a prosecutor going to court is rarely, if ever taken, the ACLU’s Hawk said.
The auditor’s association supports changing the law to only barring those who are incarcerated because it makes registration simpler for the potential voter and elections staff: If the person is standing there, they are clearly not incarcerated and can register if they meet the other requirements of being at least 18, a U.S. citizen and a state resident.
While the proposal got generally strong support from people who testified, it had some clear skeptics on the committee. Rep. Jenny Graham, a Spokane Republican, questioned whether voting rights should be restored to repeat sex offenders and if removing the possible penalties for not keeping up with financial obligations would lead to some released felons not paying into funds that help victims.
A person who commits murder permanently takes away the voting rights of the victim but could get his or her voting rights restored, Graham said. “Do you think that is fair?” she asked Simmons.
”There is no amount of punishment that can make that better,” Simmons replied. But the courts decide the level of punishment and length of incarceration, she added, so a person convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to live in prison would never have their voting rights restored.
Rep. Jim Walsh, an Aberdeen Republican, wondered if there was a public safety risk in allowing repeat felons to vote. It might be small “but it’s certainly nonzero,” he said.
It would be hard to predict how formerly incarcerated people would vote, Simmons said.
They could vote for a policy that some legislators don’t agree with, Young said.
“They might vote for something that could incarcerate people more, because of their experience in prison,” he said. “It kind of cuts both ways.”
The committee is scheduled to vote on Thursday whether to send the floor to the House.