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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control: Proposal to let Washington prison inmates vote sparks heated panel discussion

The Airway Heights Correctional Center is seen near Spokane.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Jim Camden For The Spokesman-Review

With more than a thousand bills introduced in any legislative session, it’s not surprising that some aren’t quite ready for prime time when they get their first legislative hearing.

That doesn’t keep them from generating an interesting, unusual and even heated discussion in committee. It might even be a reason the discussion is so heated.

That seemed to be the case last week with House Bill 2030, which would rewrite state law that prevents any person convicted of an “infamous crime” from registering to vote.

Under current law, an infamous crime is any punishable by death or imprisonment in a state or federal corrections facility, which is to say, a felony. The proposal would change that to any “state crime punishable by death.”

There is, however, no crime punishable by death in Washington. The state Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that capital punishment cannot be applied constitutionally, and the Legislature repealed the death penalty statute in 2023.

So essentially, it’s a proposal to let incarcerated felons register to vote, a step beyond the law passed in 2021 that allows felons to register once they are no longer in custody, even if they still owe money for fines or restitution. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Tarra Simmons, a Bremerton Democrat who is the first former prison inmate to serve in the Legislature, was one of the driving forces behind that earlier bill.

For some Republican members of the House State Government and Tribal Relations Committee, this is a step too far. And possibly a step over a cliff into an abyss.

They deployed what might best be described as a “parade of horribles” – including one of the state’s most notorious serial killers – as arguments against it.

Rep. Sam Low, of Lake Stevens, asked whether convicted Green River serial murderer Gary Ridgway would be allowed to vote if the bill passed. Since his sentence has been commuted, he theoretically could, Simmons said, although Ridgway has been transferred to a Colorado prison.

Low said he’d been thinking a lot about Ridgway after reading this bill, and when Cindy Madigan of the League of Women Voters said that organization supported allowing inmates to vote, he asked: “Gary Ridgway took the voting rights of 49 to 70 women. Is it the position of the League of Women Voters he should have his voting rights restored?”

Citing an extreme case isn’t necessarily relevant to the majority, Madigan replied. “The purpose of representative government is to have all citizens vote.”

Thanks to the Legislature’s expansion of testimony to remote internet connections, inmates from the Washington Correctional Center at Shelton told the committee that allowing them to vote would give many of them a sense of social responsibility and a feeling their voice matters.

Raymond Williams, who is serving a life sentence, said losing the right to vote is a “civil death,” adding that he’d never actually had a “civil birth.” He was arrested as a juvenile but tried and convicted as an adult, and never was eligible to vote.

Williams said he understood the concern about a case like Ridgway’s, but asked the critics to consider “we’re not all Gary Ridgways.”

Registered voters can be called for jury duty, said Rep. Greg Cheney, of Battleground, the top Republican on the committee.

He asked Simmons if a person serving a sentence for vehicular manslaughter should serve on a jury for someone accused of driving under the influence.

Not necessarily, because people regularly get excused from jury duty or removed from the jury pool, she said.

Rep. Leonard Christian, a Spokane Valley Republican, asked if one would open up a prison for a candidate to talk to the potential voters there. “I think candidates should go into prisons and see what’s going on there,” Simmons replied.

The Secretary of State’s office, the ultimate overseer of elections, had some more technical problems with the bill, spokesman Brian Hatfield said. For example, the bill doesn’t make it clear whether inmates would be registered in the political jurisdiction where they lived before conviction or in the one where the prison is located, he said, and there are complications with either option.

If each prisoner is registered at his or her preprison address, local elections offices would have to supply and oversee the security of hundreds of different ballots from different jurisdictions, Hatfield said.

According to U.S. Census rules and current state law, inmates are counted as residents of their last known address before they were sentenced, not their current prison address.

But even if they were initially registered there, Cheney asked if they couldn’t change their registration to their current address. With the state’s registration law, that could theoretically happen up to Election Day, Hatfield said.

Some prisons are in smaller communities, where the voting prison population might surpass the local nonincarcerated population, Hatfield said. The city of Connell, for example, is home to the Coyote Ridge correctional facility. Connell has 1,164 residents; Coyote Ridge has 1,900 inmates, who theoretically could form a block that influenced local elections, he said.

People behind bars “are not a monolith,” said Anthony Blankenship of Free the Vote Washington. “They’re not going to vote all Democrat or all Republican.” Julian Saucier, also with Free the Vote, said he was incarcerated in 2008, and is sure that most of the inmates, if they had been eligible to vote, would not have voted for Barack Obama, based on the racial makeup of that prison’s population.

Simmons’ bill has seven Democratic co-sponsors, including Spokane Rep. Timm Ormsby. But it is not yet scheduled for a committee vote. Like other bills making their debut in this short session, it may be more of a place to begin discussion on a question of civic engagement and democratic equity than a well-honed policy on the fast track to the governor’s desk.