Tens of thousands of people in Washington are denied the right to vote solely because of outstanding financial obligations. To remedy this injustice, House Bill 2054 in the Washington Legislature proposed enabling ex-felons to regain the right to vote once they have completed their punishment, even though they may still be paying off monetary debts.
In 2003 and 2004, House Bill 2054 was advanced jointly by the League of Women Voters of Washington, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. It was endorsed by a number of other community organizations. In the 2005 legislative session, the ACLU will again advocate for ex-felon voting rights.
Under Washington law, even though individuals have served their time, they are not allowed to vote until they have paid all court-imposed fines and monetary penalties. This debt can include penalty assessments, docket and filing fees, court costs, court-appointed attorney fees, restitution and compensation, and costs of incarceration. The debt compounds at an annual rate of 12%. The size of the court-imposed debt is unrelated to the severity of the offense; persons who commit a property crime can face much higher financial obligations than persons convicted of a violent offense.
As a result of the current law, nearly four percent of Washington’s total eligible voting population cannot vote. This is almost double the national average for ex-felon disenfranchisement. An estimated 150,000 people who have been convicted of felonies in our state are permanently or temporarily disenfranchised, according to a 1998 report by the Sentencing Project. Combined with racial disparity in our state’s rate of incarceration, approximately one-fourth of all African-American males in Washington are unable to vote.
House Bill 2054 sought to restore the right to vote to ex-felons once they have completed their punishment, even though they may still be paying off monetary debts. Under the bill, ex-felons are still required to pay court-imposed financial obligations; those obligations, however, will no longer bar them from registering and exercising the right to vote.