(The Center Square) – Washington is the latest state to join nationwide efforts to let convicts once again have a say at the ballot box.
Sponsored by state Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Kitsap, House Bill 1078 would restore full voting rights to felons while on parole and waive the typical fines that come with seeing those rights restored.
In Washington, certain felony convictions come with 36 months of "community custody" in which released prisoners must continue reporting to the state Department of Corrections under certain court-mandated conditions.
The bill is especially personal for Simmons, a lawyer and civil rights activist, who was convicted on drug possession charges a decade ago and served 30 months in prison while battling addiction.
"When an individual does come home after incarceration, they will face many barriers," Simmons said. "The punishment never seems to end, and I can tell you that firsthand. There may be some rational basis of public safety risk to justify some of those barriers. However, restoring a person's right to vote has no public safety risk associated with it."
Washington is home to 12 prisons and 16,000 prisoners statewide, at least 95% of whom will see release based on national trends.
As of 2021, only Maine, Vermont, and the District of Columbia protect the right to vote at all times. In 18 states—which includes Oregon, Ohio, Colorado, and California—voting rights are restricted during imprisonment and restored during parole. In another states 19 states including Washington, Texas, and Georgia, prisoners have the right to a ballot only upon completing their sentence.
Under HB 1078, Simmons said, the state's voting rights laws would be easier to administer and restore "some amount of dignity for our neighbors when we welcome them home."
For Caryln Sampson, executive director of the Rebuilding Hope! Pierce County Sexual Assault Center, supporting HB 1078 was an easy decision for herself and her staff.
"I can admit that I used to view our world and our justice system through a pretty simple lens where convinced criminals were bad people who made bad choices," Sampson said. "To have their rights and freedoms taken away from them seemed right, just, and what our victims would want to have happen."
Sampson said her work with at-risk youth and adults over the past several years convinced her that more prisoners are in more need of rehabilitation rather than continued punishment, which includes seeing their right to vote restored.
"Please don't misunderstand me, we want all individuals held equitably accountable for their criminal behavior and offenses against victims and communities," Sampson said. "Since the vast majority of criminal offenders are inevitably released, we also need to advocate for a statewide community here in Washington that reintegrates those individuals in a manner that best restores their sense of value and potential to the community they are rejoining."
State Rep. Jenny Graham, R-Spokane, argued in January that the forfeiture voting rights comes with the state's duty to impose restitution for offenders.
"What's bothering me right now is that there's no oversight as far as if they have restitution to pay to the victim or the community," Graham said. "It doesn't stop them from buying a $150 pair of jeans or a new cellphone or anything that matters to them and they absolutely never take care of their responsibilities to help the person that they created that's a victim."
Mac B. Pevey, assistant secretary with the state Department of Corrections, said in response financial penalties are largely up to the courts to decide. He did not connect that issue, however, to voting rights.
HB 1078 passed the House with flying colors last month and joins election bills in Oregon which include restoring prisoners' right to vote while imprisoned.
One adopted amendment from Simmons moves its effective date from 2021 to 2022 and cuts the requirement that prisoners file a declaration of mental competency to see their voting rights restored.
The bill, now with 18 sponsors in the Senate, awaits action by the Senate State Government and Elections Committee before it can see a second floor vote in the Senate.