The House today approved and sent to the governor a bill that reforms Washington's convoluted system for restoring voting rights. The measure (HB 1517) will automatically restore the right to vote to citizens who have come out of the criminal justice system.
"This is a much-needed reform of an unfair and confusing system for restoring voting rights," said ACLU-WA Legislative Director Shankar Narayan. "Automatic restoration will help people who have served their time to reconnect with their communities. People who vote are at less risk of reoffending, and that leads to safer communities for us all."
Under the reform measure, individuals can register to vote once they're no longer under state-supervised parole or probation. Individuals will still have to repay their debts, but – like anyone else who owes money – they will not be denied the right and duty to vote. It will create a simpler and clearer system and provide a needed bright line to identify those who are eligible to vote.
The prime sponsor of HB 1517 is Rep. Jeannie Darneille. A companion bill in the Senate was sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles.
Under existing state law, more than 167,000 Washington citizens who have prior convictions currently are prohibited from voting. Many of them have completed their prison time and community custody time, yet cannot vote solely because they haven't completely paid off all the fees and other costs associated with their sentence; interest on these legal system debts accrues at 12% percent a year. An overwhelming majority of felony defendants are indigent at the time of sentencing, and many can never fully pay off their legal system debts – and as a result cannot vote.
It unfairly ties the right to vote – an essential right in a democratic society – to one's financial means. It also disproportionately impacts people of color; the disenfranchisement rate among African Americans is five times that of the general population and roughly three times as high among Latinos.
"Our current system is a modern version of the poll tax. Voting is fundamental to our democracy, and the right to vote should never depend on how much money a person has," said ACLU-WA Executive Director Kathleen Taylor.
In addition, the current system for restoring the right to vote is so complicated that even election officials are often unsure who is and is not eligible to vote. It can take nine separate steps, involving state and county officials and several forms and petitions, for a citizen to regain the franchise.
Thirteen other states, including Oregon, plus the District of Columbia, automatically restore the right to vote. In Washington, automatic restoration is supported by a wide range of organizations, including the League of Women Voters of Washington, the Washington Association of Churches, the Washington State Bar Association, and Washington State NOW, as well as Secretary of State Sam Reed.