By Kathleen Taylor
Consider two people who are convicted of felonies. Both go to prison and serve their time. But one is able to vote upon release from custody, while the other will not be able to vote for many years after release, perhaps ever.
What makes the difference — seriousness of the offense? Length of sentence? Personal history?
In Washington, the answer is "none of the above." The person with more money is far more likely to regain the right to vote. This is because of a state law — recently upheld by the Washington Supreme Court — under which the right to vote will be restored only after payment of all court costs and other related financial obligations. And that includes interest, which accrues at 12 percent per year.
In practice, this means a wealthy citizen may be able to vote again almost immediately; a citizen who cannot afford to pay the financial portions of the sentence right away may wait many years, maybe forever, to vote again.
The system for restoring voting rights isn't just unfair; it is so complex and confusing that it causes major problems at election times. Election officials find it devilishly complicated to figure out who still owes money on a sentence. The Department of Corrections stops keeping records after persons have completed their terms of custody. Payments are made to a network of county court clerks; they each have their own accounting systems that were never designed to interface with voter-registration rolls.
As a result, state and local officials often are uncertain exactly who is eligible to vote. In short, this is a broken system.
The effects of the law are widespread, affecting tens of thousands of citizens. The vast majority of people convicted of crimes in Washington are poor when they enter prison, and even poorer when they leave. Once out, it can be difficult for them to find decent-paying jobs. Overall, only a small portion of the people convicted of felonies in Washington are ever able to vote again after they have served their time.
The loss of voting rights hits racial minorities especially hard. Felony disenfranchisement affects 3.6 percent of the state's total voting-age population, but 10.6 percent of the Latino population and 17.2 percent of the African-American population.
As a matter of principle, a democratic society should never condition the right to vote on a person's wealth. Poll taxes have been justly outlawed. And, we normally do not use the right to vote as a method of debt collection. People with unpaid parking tickets also owe money to the state, but they are not disenfranchised.
Many states have a more sensible, streamlined system. Our Northwest neighbors, Oregon and Montana, automatically restore the right to vote at the end of the term of imprisonment. A simple, clear rule based on whether a person is currently incarcerated would have eliminated some of the confusion we saw in the 2004 elections. Anyone not in prison who is otherwise eligible may register to vote. Any other system requires election officials to become bogged down in a maze of paperwork, subject to mistakes and second-guessing.
The current system also places a barrier to rehabilitation of people who have served their time. At least two recent studies have shown that people who vote after their release from prison are far less likely to commit future crimes than those who do not. As a matter of public safety, the state should encourage full political participation.
Fortunately, the legislature can fix this broken system. No constitutional amendment is required. In 2007, automatic restoration bills were introduced and garnered support by the Secretary of State's Office and the Department of Corrections. So did a wide array of organizations, including the League of Women Voters, the Washington State Labor Council, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs.
Though the legislation did not pass this year, it will be up for consideration again in 2008.
Gov. Christine Gregoire has observed that Washington's current re-enfranchisement system creates "a virtual debtor's prison." It doesn't have to be that way. We should join the states that automatically restore voting rights once people have finished their prison sentences. And, we shouldn't wait to act until after the next major election.
Taylor is the executive director of the ACLU of Washington.