On Monday, Feb. 28, the House State Government Committee held a hearing on legislation backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington to fix our state’s unfair and ineffective procedures for restoring the right to vote to ex-offenders. HB 2062, sponsored by Representative Jeannie Darneille, ensures that offenders who have completed all other aspects of their sentence are not denied the right to vote solely because of financial reasons.
“Our current system is so complex and unreliable that many people are wrongly being disenfranchised permanently. We need a simpler, clearer system that enables voting officials to track accurately who has lost and who has regained their voting rights,” said Jennifer Shaw, Legislative Director for the ACLU.
Problems in the 2004 election have made clear that the state’s system for restoring voting rights to ex-felons needs a serious overhaul. Washington law disenfranchises individuals convicted of any felony offense. Even after serving a full prison sentence, many ex-offenders are unable to vote because they have not paid off all their legal financial obligations. It does not matter that they may have lived successfully in society for years since their release from incarceration, or that interest amounts accrued faster than payments could be made. Further, the system is so unmanageable that many ex-offenders have not been able to get their rights to vote restored even after they have paid off their financial obligations.
To address this problem, the ACLU is supporting legislation to allow individuals to regain the right to vote automatically once they have completed the conditions of their sentence, even if they still have to pay legal financial obligations (filing fees, fines, court costs, court-appointed attorney fees, etc.). The bill does not eliminate financial debts; it simply reinstates the franchise. Under this bill, the state can collect legal financial obligations from ex-offenders the same way it does from anyone who owes debt to the state, such as child support or student loans. The state does not strip these individuals of the right to vote, and it should not treat people with debts relating to criminal judgments differently.