Washington GOP to push back on Dem effort to ease felon voter restrictions
For the past decade, felons in Washington have been able to restore their voting rights once they complete their sentences — including finishing community supervision, which is the Washington equivalent of parole or probation.
Democratic Senator Patty Kuderer is expected to renew her push this session to lift that restriction so felons can vote as soon as they’re out of lock up, regardless of whether they’re still under the Department of Corrections supervision.
Kuderer had a bill this past session to do that but it never made it to a floor vote. She’s expected to renew that effort in the upcoming 2020 legislative session.
During a Tuesday legislative work session, Kuderer noted restrictions on the voting rights of felons was rooted in Jim Crow laws. She said they are discriminatory and pointed out there was no evidence that stripping felons of voting rights was a deterrent for criminal behavior.
“It is fundamental to our democracy to have that right, and if someone chooses to exercise it or not it is their choice – but I don’t think that it’s appropriate for us to deny them the right to vote,” Kuderer added.
A panel of experts at the session agreed, including Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center for Justice.
“This impact is disproportionately felt by people of color, black citizens are four times as likely to be disenfranchised as non-black citizens in Washington – that is a rate that outstrips the disparate impact in both California and Oregon. That is because of structural inequalities built in to the criminal justice system and highlights the problem of linking voting rights to the criminal justice system,” Morales-Doyle explained.
He added that the wide range of differing laws across states and inconsistencies in Washington’s law lead to confusion. He said that it can lead to people not voting even though they are legally permitted to.
“The fact is that people are confused about whether or not they have the right to vote or not,” Morales-Doyle said.
“Keep in mind that children often learn civic engagement and the idea of going to the polls and voting from their parents, and so there are additional ripple effects,” Morales-Doyle added.
Then there are the kids.
Others, including some inmates who called into the work session said the end result is felons not having a voice.
Republican Senator Hans Zeiger says the Senate Republican Caucus has concerns and will push back on Kuderer’s bill.
“The existing law, I think, is sufficient in this type of situation – you can go ahead and vote once you’ve completed your community custody,” Zeiger said, adding that struck the right balance between ensuring people are serving out the sentence that they’ve earned and making sure they can register to vote again once it is complete.
Zeiger believes Kuderer’s idea would only add to confusion, and could open the door to an even more lenient policy.
“We’ve received some information from one interest group that is interested in going a step further like Vermont and Maine currently have, where all people are within their prison system are allowed to vote if they’re citizen,” Zeiger said. “I’m not sure that the public is ready to get to that point, I think there would be significant opposition.”
At this point there is no proposal to allow felons to vote from behind bars.