Like all but two states, Washington strips away the right to vote when a felon is convicted and sent to prison. What happens after the prison sentence is completed when the felon tries to restore that right is needlessly muddled under current law.
The Legislature should pass Senate Bill 6228 to make voting rights clearer and more accessible to ex-offenders. The chance to vote is an important step toward reintegrating people who have served out their confinement.
The Senate Committee on State Government, Tribal Relations and Elections approved the bill, sponsored by Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue. Like a House bill filed by Rep. Laurie Dolan, D-Olympia, it would automatically restore voting rights for all state residents who get out of prison. Those in prison cannot vote, and the bill rightly leaves that prohibition in place.
Nationally, criminal records block millions of citizens from voting or running for office, including 10 states that impose lifetime voting bans for some offenses. About a third of those affected are Black, which is extremely disproportionate; the U.S. Census Bureau estimates African Americans are about 15% of the national population.
Washington accounts for a sliver of this total. Washington state prisons release about 8,000 people a year, according to Department of Corrections statistics. At the end of 2019, nearly 21,000 residents not imprisoned were on active supervision. State residents discharged from the federal system also are affected.
Under present law, those ex-inmates’ right to vote remains subject to confusing restrictions.
When offenders are in community supervision — the modern version of parole — either after prison time or in lieu of it, they’re free to hold jobs, live with their families and pay taxes, but cannot vote. A felon who is done with all supervision can still lose their right to vote for falling behind on paying fines or victim restitution. Although research by the office of the Secretary of State did not turn up evidence of such a revocation, its existence on state books wrongly ties the right to vote to having financial means.
Under SB 6228, this mix of restrictions is reduced to one clear line: any adult citizen residing in Washington who isn’t in state custody can participate in elections. Disenfranchising offenders who aren’t imprisoned serves no clear criminal-justice purpose. Both Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys support its elimination.
Washington has proudly led the nation in many other expansions of ballot-box access, including vote-by-mail, automatic voter registration and preregistration of teenagers. But the state is in the middle of the pack on felons’ voting rights. By joining the 19 states that allow probationers and parolees to vote, Washington would give ex-offenders a way to make a meaningful step back into society.
Many formerly incarcerated people experience psychological and logistical challenges in rejoining society, with complex barriers in the way of employment, housing, reconnecting with family and education. SB 6228 would remove an obstacle to civic engagement and improve connections with those willing to register and participate while transitioning back into communities statewide.