An embarrassing snafu uncovered in the 2004 governor’s election may soon be rectified.
Forces are mounting to overhaul the state’s ex-felon voting laws, long regarded as not only one of the most unjust in the country, but the most convoluted as well.
Last spring, a Joint Legislative Task Force released a study recommending the “automatic restoration of voting rights upon discharge” for ex-felons. Anyone not in “total confinement” — complete custody of the Department of Corrections — would be allowed to vote. The same law is used in 12 other states.
In addition to the Task Force recommendation, two cases regarding ex-felon voting are being heard by the State Supreme Court; the Secretary of State also supports changing the law. With this momentum, supporters of change, including the ACLU of Washington, are hoping to pass a bill through the legislature this spring.
In challenging Gov. Christine Gregoire’s 129-vote victory in the 2004 election, Republicans asked if ex-felons could vote. The more they tried to clarify who could vote and who couldn’t, the more confused they became. No one — not the courts, judges, legislatures, candidates, or even ex-felons themselves — could agree on the answer.
That’s because Washington’s system of voter disenfranchisement is one of the most convoluted in the country. Demos, a national public policy and advocacy group, gave the state an “F” for making a “process so complicated that it effectively bars former felons from regaining their right to vote.” As of 2004, there are nearly 167,000 ex-felons in Washington.
Currently, a “formerly incarcerated person” may regain their right to vote once they have completed their prison time and paid off all “legal financial obligations.”
Finding out much they owe, and how to pay their debts, is another issue: There is no uniform process. Fines are assessed as a part of the sentencing and interest accrues during incarceration; the Department of Corrections dumped the task of tracking the fines onto the Clerk of Courts, with no increase in budget or staffing. And even after citizens have paid their obligations, it can still take up to nine separate steps, involving state and county officials and several forms and petitions, to actually regain the right to vote. Furthermore, there are at least five different ways for ex-felons to regain their right to vote, depending on when and where they were sentenced.
The system is so complex that ex-offenders and the government officials who track them aren’t always sure if they completed the process successfully. Horror stories abound: One man was kept from voting due to an accounting error that gave him an outstanding financial obligation of 77 cents.
Washington’s felon disenfranchisement laws have been criticized for years because of their impact on minority communities. Thirteen percent of voting-age African-Americans in the state, and 25 percent of adult African-American men, are unable to vote due to the law.
The ACLU and a coalition of other organizations have sought to reform Washington’s voting rights procedures in the past. For the past six years, bills to restore ex-felons’ voting rights without making them pay off their fees have failed.
By CHRIS LAROCHE, Contributing Writer
Look up the bill at leg.wa.gov by clicking on “bill information” and then typing “automatic restoration” in the search field.
For copy of actual issue, go to https://www.realchangenews.org/2007/01/10/jan-10-2007-entire-issue