By Rep. Jeannie Darneille and Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles

Two people are released from prison. One of them is from a well-to-do family, which immediately sets him up in a job with a six-figure salary. On Election Day, he watches eagerly to see if the candidates he voted for are elected.

The other person isn’t so fortunate. He had little money when he was convicted, and the best job he can land is low-paying. He can’t pay off all of the fines associated with his sentence. On Election Day, he is just a spectator. He’s been prohibited from voting.

It flies in the face of American values that when two people are released from prison, only the one with enough money is permitted to vote. As Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander has said, it’s a modern version of the poll tax. But that’s how it is here in Washington.

People who are convicted of felonies in this state lose the right to vote. Even after they’ve served their time, they cannot vote until they have paid off completely the financial obligations related to their sentence.

By state law, those obligations accrue interest at 12 percent a year. The result is that many people earning low incomes continually fall behind. Even when they’re paying all they can, they often are only paying off the interest on the debt. An overwhelming majority of felony defendants are indigent at the time of sentencing, can never fully pay off their debts, and as a result are never able to regain their right to vote. And over 25 percent of the individuals in our prisons are people of color who are disproportionately incarcerated and disproportionately disenfranchised.

Further, even if individuals do manage to pay off their debts, the system for restoring their right to vote is extremely cumbersome. It is so convoluted that most people can’t navigate the system without hiring an attorney—something else that favors the affluent. It can take nine separate steps, involving state and county officials and several forms and petitions, to regain the right to vote.

The process is so confusing that even elections officials often are not sure who is eligible to vote and who isn’t. Currently, the state has no uniform way to determine who can and who can’t vote, and county officials waste time and resources they could use in other essential work.

This unfair and unwieldy process needs to change. We have introduced a proposal that automatically restores the right to vote to people who are no longer in the criminal justice system. The proposal would not relieve anyone of the obligation to pay court-imposed fees and penalties, but that obligation wouldn’t be tied to the ability to vote. Over a dozen states have already passed similar measures.

Restoring voting rights for people who have served their time is supported by a wide range of organizations, including the League of Women Voters of Washington, the Washington Association of Churches, the Washington State Bar Association, and Washington State NOW, as well as Secretary of State Sam Reed.

There’s a major benefit to communities in restoring voting rights, too. People with criminal records who vote are more engaged as productive citizens. Studies have shown that they are more likely to volunteer, and they’re half as likely to reoffend as their counterparts who don’t vote. Restoring voting rights would make our communities safer.

It’s not fair to continue depriving people of such a basic right simply because they can’t afford to pay their debts. No one else in debt is prohibited from voting, even if she or he is in bankruptcy.

According to voting rights groups, felony disenfranchisement -- often a holdover from exclusionary Jim Crow-era laws like poll taxes and ballot box literacy tests -- affects about 5.3 million former and current felons in the United States. In Washington, more than 100,000 people could be eligible to register to vote when this proposal is adopted.

The right to vote is fundamental. We should encourage people to exercise that right and eliminate this barrier to their participation in our democracy.
Darneille D-District 27 is a state representative. Kohl-Welles D-District 36 is a state senator.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Washington Forum. 3/09

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