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WA Bill Would Restore Voting Rights for People Out of Prison

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Friday, November 1, 2019   

SEATTLE – While many Washingtonians with felony convictions had their voting rights restored a decade ago, barriers – and confusion – remain. A bill in next year's legislative session aims to rectify that.

Democratic state Sen. Patty Kuderer of Bellevue wants to allow people in community custody – known as "on parole" in many states – to vote. The former prosecutor says punishment for breaking the law is supposed to deter crime.

"I don't think that taking away someone's right to vote fits the crime,” says Kuderer. “And I say that because there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that taking away someone's right to vote has a deterrent effect on the commission of crime."

Kuderer notes restrictions on voting rights for people who have been in prison has its roots in Jim Crow – a set of laws enacted in the early 20th century to enforce racial segregation.

About 21,000 Washingtonians are in community custody, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Kuderer says she's spoken with many formerly incarcerated people who are unsure about their voting eligibility. She hopes the new bill can simplify the law in a number of ways.

The original bill passed a decade ago – restoring rights for people who were convicted of felonies – allows folks to register once they pay off their legal debts. But Kuderer believes a person's voting rights should not be connected to legal financial obligations.

"Tying your right to vote to repayment of those obligations is nothing more than a poll tax,” says Kuderer.

David Elliott, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State, told lawmakers as far as he knows, no one has had their voting rights taken away because of legal fees or fines.


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