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Eligible to Vote in Washington

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July 28, 2009

(Cross-posted to Washblog and Daily Kos)

On Saturday, “John” could not register to vote in Washington State. On Sunday, he could. John did not turn 18 on Sunday, nor did he become a citizen. Rather, a new law went into effect in Washington lifting the ban that prevented John, as well as thousands of other Washington citizens, from voting.

Until Sunday, individuals with felony convictions in Washington could not vote until they fully completed their sentences and repaid all legal financial obligations associated with their sentence. Thousands of Washingtonians were barred from voting because of this modern-day poll tax. Among them was John, who had completed his sentence yet remained disfranchised because he had outstanding legal financial obligations, of which almost two-thirds was interest. As a man living with HIV, he feared he would be “dead and gone way before I will ever be able to vote in this state. To me it’s simple mathematics: pay the courts and be homeless…or live the rest of my life with a roof over my head.”

When asked why he wanted to vote, John said he had two reasons: “I’m raising my grandkids. It’s been a cycle of jails and institutions for them and I want to show them a different picture …I want to show them what being included in society looks like and yet I can’t provide that while being disfranchised. The other reason is that I personally want a say. Right now, I’m being taxed without representation.”

The new law, which went into effect on Sunday, divorces the right to vote from the ability to pay outstanding legal fees. John is now eligible to register to vote and cast his ballot. But many other Americans are not as lucky. In Tennessee, individuals with criminal convictions cannot apply for restoration of voting rights until they are up to date on all child support payments. In Virginia, individuals cannot apply if they have any outstanding parking tickets. In Florida, all outstanding restitution must be paid. Thirty to forty percent of Floridians ineligible for restoration of civil rights are ineligible because they have outstanding restitution obligations, a restriction that disproportionately burdens low-income people. It is important to note that these financial barriers to voting apply only to those with criminal convictions.

On Sunday, Washington became the 20th state in recent years to ease voting restrictions for individuals with criminal convictions. Next week, the ACLU of Washington will launch Promote the Vote in Seattle and Tacoma to celebrate the new law and educate newly enfranchised Washingtonians about their rights. Rep. Jeannie Darneille, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the League of Women Voters and the Washington Bus will be celebrating this momentous victory by registering voters and spreading the word about this victory for all Americans.

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