Washington State Ends its Version of the Poll Tax

(Originally posted in Daily Kos.)

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.

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Maggie

I guess if you are not the right color you have no more rights.

Since they can't pay their fees. We might as well not arrest anyone. The tax payer will have less to pay for and everyone gets their right to vote.

A perfect world.

How many of these people will actually vote?

roald

Maggie, I don't understand your comment. How does having fewer rights link to not having the correct ethnicity? Why wouldn't we arrest people who are able and refuse to pay their debts? What is the tie between having the right to vote and actually voting?

Maggie

Roald, Unless I read it wrong the following message was quoted: "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." Unless you are a person of color this claim would never have come up.

2) Because of this quote: 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."

3) Everyone has the right to vote however not everyone does, this being said having given someone the right to vote if they have not paid their fines to me is political. I believe that political parties assume that giving this right they are hoping for political gain.

If you are a voter it is your civic reponsiblity to vote, those that don't vote are the biggest complainers. Their favorite line is "it would not have made a difference." I believe that political people are hoping that at least 50% will vote.

roald

Maggie...thanks for the response. It is nice to hear from someone who is able to think and reason rather than spout a party line and I appreciate that even when we do not agree.

I believe that you read the article correctly,but misinterpreted the meaning. Or I may have misunderstood what you wrote. What does, "If you are not the right color [assuming non-white] you have no more rights." mean? Someone did look at race and found a correlation. I suspect no one looked at left/right handedness for a correlation. That does not make the correlation found less valid. We do need to look at whether the relationship is casual or causal.

I hold the right to vote as pretty important and agree with you that everyone who can, should. Given that, taking away that right should not be done lightly. Paying a fine to the government is not high on my list if I am having trouble paying for food and shelter. I believe that political parties who want to take away that right are hoping for political gain. You say "tomato", I say "tomato". (Doesn't work as well in print.)

WilyBadger

Oh, wonderful! I did Something Bad when I lived in Washington, and as a result haven't been able to vote. I just paid off my fines a few months ago, but I was looking at having to schlep from my home in Arizona up to Washington in order to have my rights restored. Not anymore! Yay! :)

When does this bill take effect? I want to register down here as soon as I can!

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