State Legislature votes to further extend voting rights of felons

The Washington State Legislature has approved a bill that will automatically restore voting rights to people convicted of a felony once they are released from prison.

Under current state law, felons have their voting rights restored once their entire sentence is completed. House Bill 1078 will extend the franchise to people on parole and those in debt.

HB 1078 is part of a broader national movement to extend voting rights to formerly incarcerated people. Seventeen states already allow parolees to vote, and almost identical re-enfranchisement bills are under consideration in New Mexico and Virginia this year. Maine, Vermont and the District of Columbia have never restricted prisoners from voting. On March 3, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the restoration of voting rights to formerly incarcerated people as part of the For the People Act.

Washington’s HB 1078 was introduced in the state House by Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-Bainbridge), a freshman legislator who is one of the first formerly incarcerated people to become a lawmaker.

Simmons’ bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Jesse Young (R-Gig Harbor). Simmons and Young effectively teamed up in committee hearings. In the Senate State Government Elections Committee hearing on March 10, Simmons described the obstacles she faced once out of prison, including not having the right to vote, while Young told stories of his own hard upbringing with historical arguments about the intentions of the country’s Founding Fathers.

A range of stakeholders supported the legislators’ arguments during committee meetings. A variety of witnesses, all of whom supported the measure, spoke during the March 10 hearing.

Many of them pointed to research showing that civic engagement helps people reintegrate into society.

Mason County Auditor Paddy McGuire represented the Washington Association of State Auditors, the office that administers elections. She argued that the bill would significantly simplify the system.

“We like bright lines and clear standards,” she said.

Arthur Rizer, a conservative legal expert at the Scalia Law School, argued that the bill would help reduce government overreach.

“The most powerful thing the government can do to you is take away your right to participate in the civic process,” he said.

A representative of the state’s Department of Corrections informed the committee that more than 26,000 Washingtonians will be affected by the law.

Despite the unanimous support in public hearings and the support of Young, the bill was strongly opposed by Republicans in both the House and the Senate.

On the Senate floor, members of the GOP introduced a number of amendments to limit the scope of the law by excluding certain offenders —sexual predators and those who used firearms in their crimes, efforts which were rejected by Democrats.

Discussions over these amendments turned heated, with state Sen. Keith Wagoner (R-Sedro-Wooley) boiling down his party’s line.

“I think the bright line is between people who have fully repaid their debt to society and those who have not fully repaid their debt to society,” he said. “We’re telling the state of Washington how we feel about these crimes. They should not have the privilege, and voting is a privilege.”

Senator Patty Kuderer (D-Bellevue) responded.

“Denying people the right to vote doesn’t help victims,” she said. “We’ve heard that voting is a special privilege, but I’d just like to remind the body that people have died for that privilege.”

Her first argument was supported by Sen. Sam Hunt (D-Olympia), who read a statement from the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, stating, “Relentless punishment from the state, including the inability to exercise the vote, is not a priority we hear about from survivors of domestic violence or advocates that work with them.”

The House of Representatives passed the bill, 57-41, on Feb. 24, and it passed in the Senate, 27-22, March 24. Young was the only Republican to vote for the measure, while one Democratic lawmaker, Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-Snohomish), voted against it. Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign the bill into law.

The Washington state legislative session is due to end on April 25.


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