Washingtonians would be automatically eligible to vote after release from incarceration under a bill in the state House, legislation that sponsors say would let an estimated 10,000 people in the state immediately regain that right.
As the law now stands, those convicted of felonies are not immediately eligible to vote when they are released back into their communities. But they can regain voting rights on an individual basis, either provisionally or permanently.
Introduced at a public hearing this month, House Bill 1078 would replace the process with one where voter eligibility is automatically restored upon the completion of one’s sentence. This would include people on probation and people who owe legal debts, such as fees and fines, to the government. The bill would not grant people now incarcerated the right to vote.
Washington would become the 21st state, along with Washington, D.C., to adopt such a policy.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, who is believed to be the first formerly incarcerated state legislator in the country. The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, and other lawmakers. This is Simmons’ first piece of legislation as a newly elected member of the House. And, she said, the bill is especially personal to her.
“[It is] an honor that is directly tied to my ability to re-enter the community after incarceration and become a voter again,” Simmons said.
She argued before the State Government & Tribal Relations Committee that the process is too complicated and often leaves those with felony convictions confused as to their eligibility status. She also said there are social and racial injustices inherent in the law.
During the hearing, held remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, voiced concern about whether felons should be voting on public-safety policy issues, and he questioned whether voting rights should be withheld until people have completed not only their prison sentence, but also fulfilled their probation and restitution.
Simmons, one of 40 bill co-sponsors, claimed the bill presents no public-safety risk, citing research that indicates restoring civil rights has, in fact, public-safety benefits and reduces recidivism.
Similar legislation has been introduced in recent years, including a bill last year that died in the state Senate after amendments were offered to exempt those convicted of certain offenses from getting their voting rights restored automatically.
“When an individual does come home after incarceration, they will face many barriers. The punishment never seems to end, and I can tell you that firsthand,” Simmons told The Seattle Times. She had been arrested three times for selling drugs before eventually being sentenced in 2011 in Kitsap Superior Court to 30 months in prison. “This makes the law easier to administer, and it restores some sense of dignity to our neighbors when we welcome them home.
“I feel like it’s a tremendous honor, and I’ve been afforded so many opportunities that people in my community have not yet been afforded,” Simmons said.
Kelly Olson, a formerly incarcerated person who testified in favor of the bill, said the current law stigmatizes formerly incarcerated individuals, and that voting in the 2020 presidential election was one of her greatest accomplishments.
“Voting is not a weapon against the community or public safety,” she said, “but denying the right to vote is a weapon against democracy.”