The first ex-inmate elected to the Washington Legislature is a fitting leader for a reform of how the state treats former offenders. Washington should join 18 other states in restoring voting rights for all felons not in prison.
Lawmakers should enact House Bill 1078, introduced by first-term Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton. As the 2020 election denouement has triggered a wave of partisan voting restriction proposals here and elsewhere, Washington should send a clear message about making voting rights inclusive.
This bill would replace overcomplicated restrictions now in place on offenders’ voting rights. A felon serving community supervision after release from prison — or instead of prison time — cannot vote, even though that person can hold a job and live at home. After that supervision ends, the right to vote is restored automatically. But it can be revoked if the ex-offender falls behind on paying court-ordered fines or restitution. Voting rights ought not be connected to the voter’s ability to make payments.
The Legislature blew an opportunity in 2020 to establish a clear, equitable standard. Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, introduced a bill, endorsed by this editorial board, that would have restored voting rights for offenders not in prison. It failed on the Senate floor after a torrent of proposed amendments to exclude people convicted of heinous offenses, including sex crimes, child molestation, gang activities, and assaults on police and judges.
This year, bills almost identical to the 2020 proposal were reintroduced in both legislative chambers. The House Committee on State Government and Tribal Relations has approved the House version.
Rep. Simmons’ life story is evidence that ex-offenders can benefit from being allowed new opportunity. A decade ago, Simmons was convicted on theft, drug and gun charges, and sentenced to 2½ years in prison. Since serving her time, she has earned a law degree and a seat in the Legislature.
Reengaging with civic life after losing liberty ought to be encouraged in offenders’ post-prison lives. And because voter registration and participation are public records, they would give the Department of Corrections’ community supervisors a useful metric for assessing how much an offender is reintegrating into society.
A long list of proponents have lined up behind this voting-rights bill, including Attorney General Bob Ferguson, the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the Washington Statewide Re-entry Council. So, too, have county elections administrators, who back having a clear standard for who can vote and who cannot.
That’s logical. Citizens free to participate in society ought to have a voice in how it is governed. The Legislature should make voting-rights restoration automatic for citizens not in the state’s custody.