A bill that would make about 9,000 felons eligible to vote is moving ahead in the Washington state Legislature, as Democratic senators vow to expand democracy by removing a barrier they say is rooted in systemic racism.
Senate Bill 6228 would make felons automatically eligible to vote once they are released from state prison. Under current law, they are eligible once they have completed community custody — formerly known as probation — and that can take several years.
“The very essence of community custody is to get people back on the right track, to reintegrate them into society and to reduce the chances of re-offending,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Patty Kuderer, a Bellevue Democrat. “Restoring the right to vote and the right to participate in our democracy is an important tool for that reintegration process.”
Stressing that her bill addresses a “major equality and social justice issue,” Kuderer said blacks and Native Americans are overly represented in the criminal justice system. As a result, they are “disproportionately stripped of their voting rights, diminishing their representation,” she said.
A Senate committee Friday approved the bill, putting it one step closer to a vote by the Democratic-controlled Senate. If it becomes law, the measure would take effect in 2021.
Senate GOP Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, is opposed to the bill, saying it removes an incentive for felons to fulfill obligations under community custody such as making restitution to crime victims. The bill states that sanctions for violating community custody requirements or failure to pay court costs, restitution to victims, or fines and fees would not take voter eligibility away from a former inmate.
“The bill’s proponents argue that denying felons the right to vote discriminates against people of color who have been convicted of crimes, but victims of crimes are also predominantly people of color. The rights of felons should not be valued more than the rights of victims, regardless of their skin,” he said in a statement.
“Prison time, community custody and restitution are all reasonable penalties for our courts to include in a sentence. Punishment for a crime in Washington does not automatically end at the prison gate, so we should not restore voting rights for convicted felons until they have completed their sentences, including their period under [Department of Corrections] supervision and paying restitution to victims,” Schoesler added.
The Department of Corrections said an estimated 8,987 people who served sentences in state prisons are eligible to have their voting rights restored. Most individuals on supervision are sentenced to 12 months, but different offense types and sentencing alternatives can carry supervision lengths of as long as 36 months. The state prison system also has some convicted felons on supervision for life.
Samuel Merrill, clerk of the criminal justice working group for the Olympia-based Quaker Voice on Washington Public Policy, said whites after the Civil War and Reconstruction adopted laws targeting former slaves for felonies to deprive them of their voting rights. The practice continued into the voter suppression laws under Jim Crow — “vestiges of which continue today,” Merrill said.
Supporters of the bill include the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the state Department of Corrections, the ACLU of Washington, and Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Schoesler said at a legislative work session last year two convicted murderers spoke in favor of the proposal — one testifying by phone from a state prison and the other by submitting a written statement.
“It should bother people that convicted murderers are backing a bill that Democrats seem to be fast-tracking this session. That tells me this bill is actually a step toward letting all inmates vote. Imagine allowing a block of people who have no ties to a community having influence over how much people pay in taxes or who is elected to serve us — even before they’ve paid their own debt to society,” Schoesler said.
Reached for comment, Kuderer said allowing state prison inmates to vote would be a logical next step.
“Until someone can show me that there’s a good reason to deprive someone of the right to vote because of the commission of a crime, then I will rethink that. But for now, I have seen zero evidence for that,” she said.