By Doug Honig, ACLU of Washington
Washington state Gov. Chris Gregoire today is signing a bill that reforms the state's unfair and unworkable system for restoring voting rights. The action eliminates the requirement that citizens with felony convictions pay off all legal financial obligations before regaining their right to vote, and aligns the state with the overwhelming majority of other states in this country who recognize such requirements as being nothing more than a modern-day version of the poll tax.
Under the previous law, citizens with prior felony convictions could not vote until they had completely paid off fees and other costs associated with their sentence, which accrue at an annual percentage rate of 12 percent. An overwhelming majority of felony defendants are indigent at the time of sentencing, and many could never fully pay off their legal system debts — and as a result could not vote.
This system unfairly tied people's right to vote to their financial means. As Gov. Gregoire put it last year, "Once they have served their time, withholding certain rights due to fines becomes a virtual debtors' prison." It also disproportionately impacted people of color — the disenfranchisement rate among African-Americans in Washington is five times that of the general population, and roughly three times as high among Latinos.
Washington has now narrowed the small group of states that still bar citizens from voting due to financial obligations, but sadly there still remain states where the right to vote is dependent on the ability to pay. In Tennessee, individuals with felony convictions are barred from voting if they are behind on child support payments, even though no one else who pays child support is bound by the same standard. In Virginia, anyone with a felony conviction is barred from voting until the governor individually restores their right to vote, and yet individuals cannot even apply to have their right to vote restored if they have so much as a parking ticket. In Florida, 30 percent of otherwise eligible individuals are unable to vote because they owe restitution, and Arizona bars individuals who owe legal financial obligations — sometimes as little as 68 cents — from the ballot box.
The new law in Washington provides that individuals automatically regain the right to vote once they are no longer under state-supervised parole or probation. They will still have to repay their debts, but — like anyone else who owes money — they will not be denied the right to vote. Washington joins 40 other states, plus the District of Columbia, that automatically restores voting rights to citizens who have completed their sentence.
The measure's passage culminates several years of advocacy and organizing by the ACLU of Washington and its allies. Initial support came from civil rights and progressive activist groups who saw the injustice of what a New York Times editorial once termed "a form of disenfranchisement that is straight out of Oliver Twist."
Later backing came from good government advocates seeking a restoration system that was not so convoluted and confusing. Washington's extremely close 2004 gubernatorial race — decided by a second recount — highlighted difficulties elections officials faced in trying to determine exactly who was eligible to vote. Many county auditors and Secretary of State Sam Reed — one of the leading Republican voices in a blue state — supported the reform measure because it provides a "bright line" for voting eligibility.
And finally, support came from law enforcement officials who recognized that enabling formerly incarcerated individuals to vote is good for public safety. Citing a study showing that someone who votes is much less likely to be re-arrested, an op-ed in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer this past winter said, "Voting is an important way to connect people to their communities …We want those who leave prison to become productive and law-abiding citizens. Voting puts them on that path." Its coauthor was then-Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, whom President Obama has tapped to be the nation's drug czar.