I once heard activist Glenn E. Martin say that “those closest to the problem are the closest to the solution, but furthest from resources and power.” Today, the Washingtonians who are most impacted by our criminal legal system are the furthest from the power of our democracy. House Bill 1078 would return that power by restoring voting rights to all people who live in our communities.
When I heard that House Bill 1078 had cleared its first hurdle toward becoming law, I sent out texts to some of my friends who also have been impacted by disenfranchisement. One was a tenant I had helped place in a group home. Another was a friend who has a life sentence of community supervision and might never vote again. Finally, I sent a “Congratulations!” text to my friend who was in prison when we first met, who is now making history as the first formerly incarcerated person elected to the state House.
Rep. Tarra Simmons is sending a message with her first bill, Bill 1078: She wants everyone in the community to be able to participate in our democracy. In Washington today, you cannot vote while on community supervision, and your voting rights can be revoked for longer if you are unable to make your payments for court debt. House Bill 1078 would return voting rights to over 20,000 people in our state.
I was one of those 20,000 at a point in my life. I was convicted in 2005 amid my life’s darkest days. Most of it was related to drug use, a response to the trauma I was experiencing with a custody issue and abuse. I had been homeless with my baby for quite some time before he was entered into foster care. I cried for the first six months in jail, wondering if I would ever see my son again.
Since my time in prison and community custody after my release, my life has changed a lot. I have learned a lot. I can say with confidence that I have been living on the right side of the law since then (give or take a few mphs on the freeway). I have worked in social service, treatment centers, long-term housing programs, donation centers, property management companies and real estate.
The stigmas that come with felony convictions or incarceration are hefty. Those with a charge that results in living on lifetime supervision or a registry have an even steeper climb to becoming a fully-embraced member of their community.
Had I been placed on a registry, I would not have been able to find housing or employment in most of the places I worked after my release, and I would have been far less able to reintegrate into society. My children’s lives would have been completely different, and I could have lost the right to vote forever.
I grew up in grassroots politics and have gone to election-night parties since I was a year old. Not being able to vote while on community custody felt like part of my family history had been taken from me. A voter registration card was just as important as my driver’s license when I was a kid, and it should be a right for everyone.
Keeping part of our community out of the political process does nothing to promote safety, solutions or good will. As representatives from the attorney general’s office, law enforcement and impacted activists shared in the hearing for HB 1078, research has shown that being civically engaged actually reduces people’s chances of re-arrest, making our communities safer.
This issue does not affect all of us equally. There are centuries of division between those who have and those who have not. The school-to-prison pipeline, systemic racism in our policing and courts and the lack of resources for people experiencing mental illness, homelessness, abuse and poverty can all lead people into the system. Often, people who find themselves in jail or prison were victims of harm before they ever got there.
This bill provides the opportunity to help our communities heal, taking the first step in the long process of rehumanizing our society. I know that there are great minds, hearts and souls in prison, and most of them are coming home. I am committed to making sure our communities are welcoming to our missing members when they return.
The right for all to vote will have an impact on everything. And it sends a clear message: We all count.
Sarah Eichhorn is an advocate for the Washington Voting Rights Restoration Coalition, https://freethevotewa.org.
Read more in the Feb. 3-9, 2021 issue.