ACLU Provides Guidance on Voting Rights

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington today submitted a friend-of- the court brief to provide guidance in understanding the state’s complex system for restoring voting rights to individuals who have served time in prison.  The brief was filed in Chelan County Superior Court in the case challenging the outcome of Washington’s gubernatorial election.

“The state’s current system for restoring voting rights is a morass that has led to much confusion among both citizens and election officials as to who is eligible to vote.  The ACLU is drawing upon its extensive experience with voting rights issues to provide insight on how the state’s statutes on re-enfranchisement work in law and in practice,” said ACLU of Washington Executive Director Kathleen Taylor. 

While supporting neither side in the case, the ACLU brief points out that for individuals, the process for restoring voting rights varies depending on the nature of the conviction, when and where the conviction occurred, and factors unique to each person’s case. Government responsibilities related to reinstating the vote are divided among a number of agencies that do not always communicate well with each other.  Official records needed to restore voting rights are dispersed among many different local and state governmental bodies, each with its own policy for retention of records.  ACLU-WA staff attorneys Nancy Talner and Aaron Caplan wrote the friend-of-the-court brief.

“The current system is so dysfunctional that mistakes are virtually inevitable.  The system makes it very difficult for people who have completed their sentences to prove that they are actually entitled to vote, while other people may have voted because they did not realize that they were ineligible to vote,” said the ACLU’s Kathleen Taylor.

Since 2003 the ACLU has advanced legislation in Olympia that would remedy problems with the current system by restoring voting rights when individuals have completed serving their time in prison.  In 2004 the ACLU filed a lawsuit asking the courts to restore the vote to persons in Washington who have served their prison terms but are denied the right to vote solely because they owe money.  The lawsuit was filed in King County Superior Court on behalf of five citizens from around the state who would like to vote but are unable to do so.

The ACLU believes the current election system is seriously flawed in other ways as well and has testified on a reform bill under consideration by the state legislature.  According to the ACLU, eligible voters have been prevented from voting, and each county interprets the election laws differently, making for inconsistent treatment of voters.  SB5743 now pending before the Legislature would provide needed guidance to county elections officials but will not solve the problem of eligible voters being prevented from voting.