Bill Seeks to Make It Easier for Felons to Vote

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SEATTLE—A measure to remove a requirement that convicted felons pay restitution and court fees before being able to vote in local, state and federal elections passed the Washington State House recently, and awaits Senate approval.

Currently, felons cannot vote until they have served their entire sentence, which includes not only the payment of any monies owed to the court or their victims, but also the completion of parole or probation.

Opponents of the current law claim that this regulation is the equivalent to a modern “poll tax.” Representative Jeannie Darneille, a Tacoma Democrat and the author of the bill, calls the current system unjust, since “[i]f you have money, you can get your rights restored, and if you don’t have money, you won’t.”

Others, however, feel that payment of the fines and restitution constitutes a valid aspect of the felons’ sentence, and that until the monetary obligations are met, the sentence would not be completed. Restrictions on voting rights are in place to ensure that felons finish out their sentence. “Voting rights should not be restored,” argues Representative Ed Orcutt, a Republican from Kalama who opposes the bill, until the entire sentence is carried out.

Neighboring state Oregon automatically restores voting rights to felons after their release from prison, regardless of financial obligations which are a condition of the release.

Nearly 40 other states, as well as the District of Columbia, also have less strict regulations regarding the restoration of voting rights to those who have been convicted of, and jailed for, felonies.

If the measure becomes law following approval in the Washington State Senate, felons would be allowed to re-register to vote as soon as they are released from state custody, including parole or probation.

Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a Democrat who sponsored a measure in the Senate concerning felons’ voting rotes, says that this measure will not exempt felons from paying their debts. Instead, it will grant them their Constitutional right to vote in all elections while they are repaying their monetary debt to society.

“I don’t think the right to vote should be based on one’s income,” she continues. Since felons may face difficulties finding high-paying jobs immediately after their release from prison, the current law can be construed as discriminatory.

 

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