ACLU Helps Man Regain the Right to Vote

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

A man who was wrongfully denied the right to vote for years has regained the franchise, with help from the ACLU.

"This was one of the more epic voting rights cases we've handled, though certainly not unique." said Eric Nygren, ACLU-WA intake manager who oversees the ACLU-WA Voting Rights Restoration Project. "Some of its features illustrate well the infuriating, Kafkaesque nature of the current system of voting rights restoration."

The individual (who asked that his name not be released) was disenfranchised in 1991 after committing two property crimes when he was 19, and in his own words, "young and stupid." He is now a 38-year-old hard-working husband and father.

He was never told that the felony convictions had disqualified him from voting. When he learned in 2004 that his voting rights had not been properly restored, he sought help from the ACLU.

Documents from his court files proved that he had completed all of the terms of his sentence by October 2001, entitling him to automatically receive a certificate of discharge, the document which restores voting rights. Unfortunately the automatic system for issuing a discharge and restoring rights failed in this case – as it has in many others. Our volunteers assisted in gathering all of the necessary documents from the court, the Department of Corrections and the county clerk's office, and our legal staff represented him in Thurston County Superior Court.

After hearing arguments from Staff Attorney Rose Spidell in March, the court agreed that the man had completed the terms of his sentence, and issued the man's certificate of discharge, effective 2001. He looks forward to voting in the 2008 election.

The ACLU is seeking passage of legislation to automatically restore the right to vote for people when they finish a term in prison. Currently, individuals have to complete all the terms of their sentences, including paying all court fees and penalties, before they are entitled to a certificate of discharge. When all terms of the sentence are completed, the court is supposed to receive notice from the Department of Corrections and the county clerk, and automatically issue a certificate of discharge, restoring the right to vote. As in this case, it often takes many years to complete payment of all financial obligations, and that "automatic" process often fails.

The legislation would simplify the long process to regain the franchise, avoid confusion at the polls, and re-enfranchise thousands of otherwise eligible Washingtonians who cannot vote.