Thousands of Washingtonians with felony convictions will have their voting rights automatically restored upon their release from prison if a bill passed by the state Senate late Wednesday gets Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature.
An estimated 20,000 people would immediately regain the right to vote, according to the Department of Corrections— more than twice the number bill sponsors had previously thought.
Currently, people with felonies do not necessarily get their right to vote restored after they leave prison. They can regain voting rights, either provisionally or permanently, after finishing the conditions of their sentence.
But many people are under community supervision, like those on probation, and are still fulfilling their sentence, though not under total confinement. For the months or years that they are under community supervision — for some people it is their entire life — they are prevented from voting. And people unable to pay their court-ordered fees and restitution can have their right revoked.
If it becomes law, House Bill 1078 will automatically restore the vote to formerly incarcerated people upon their release from full custody, regardless of whether they are in community custody or owe court debts. Washington would become the 21st state, along with Washington, D.C., to adopt such a policy.
The bill is sponsored in the House by Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, who is likely the first formerly incarcerated legislator in the country. This is Simmons’ first bill as a newly elected member of the House to be approved by the Legislature, and one that is particularly close to her.
“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 said at a hearing in January. “This makes the law easier to administer, and it restores some sense of dignity to our neighbors when we welcome them home.”
Amber Letchworth was released from incarceration in 2014 via a work release program and was already getting involved with politics her first week back in the community. But despite the fact that she was doing advocacy work and voter registration drives, she herself couldn’t vote for the two years she was on community supervision.
“It was just another barrier being smacked in your face, reminding you of the shame and the guilt society has already made you feel,” she said.
Letchworth got her voting rights restored once she left community supervision for drug and assault convictions, but she is still paying off court debt and could have her voting rights revoked again if she failed to pay.
A survey of Washington voters showed widespread support leading up to the passage of the bill, with an 87% approval rating on restoring voting rights to people who have completed their prison sentence and are living in the community.
Co-sponsor Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, spoke on the Senate floor about how the bill will ease the racially discriminatory impact of Washington’s voting laws. She said that tying civil disenfranchisement to crime “is about taking power away from certain communities, most specifically communities of color.”
“This is an equity issue, Mr. President,” Kuderer told Lt. Gov. Denny Heck during floor debate.
A number of Republicans argued that certain people should be barred from having their voting rights restored based on the type of crime they committed. People convicted of violent and sexual offenses, they argued , should not get the same right as other offenders before finishing their community custody.
Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, opposed the bill, saying victims’ voices need to be heard.
“When we begin to accommodate those who are incarcerated, and they leave a brick building, and we begin to roll out some form of welcoming stance, I continue to hear in the back of my head … where’s that voice of the victim?” Wilson said.
Advocates for crime victims and organizations representing sexual assault survivors have supported the bill, according to Kuderer. She said there is a “direct correlation between restoring the right to vote and successful re-entry into community, and that’s what we want for people exiting prison.”
“The sentence we give people who commit these heinous crimes is tied to the severity of the crime, so when they are outside the prison walls they have served the time ordered by the court,” Kuderer said.
While HB 1078 was successful this year, a similar bill last year died in the state Senate after lawmakers tried to amend it to exempt violent offenders.
Washington has been cited as a leader in voting accessibility, with progressive policies like voting by mail, the voting rights act of 2018, same-day voter registration and preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds.
“We even pay for the stamp on your postage. We have what could be called the gold standard of voting,” Kuderer said.
Deborah Idlett says she did not realize she could vote until about two years after she was eligible. She was first convicted of a felony in 2006, but was not made aware that she could vote after paying off court fees.
Now politically active and a sexual assault victims’ advocate, Idlett says she felt distant from the community for a while, and felt that the system was “set up to have an impact on me but I didn’t get to have a voice anymore.”
Idlett says the bill is a game-changer, and “it gives people a voice and it gives people a sense of connectivity to their community and it truly brings people home.”
“It changes everything.”