Washington State Senate Passes Voting Rights Restoration Bill

House Bill 1078 restores voting rights to more than 20,000 Washingtonians

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
March 24, 2021 10:45 pm

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OLYMPIA, Wash. — Today, the Washington State Senate passed House Bill 1078, legislation that will restore voting rights to more than 20,000 Washingtonians who have been impacted by the criminal legal system. Under Washington’s current policy, people with a felony conviction cannot vote for the months or years that they are on community supervision, and they can have their rights revoked if they are unable to pay their court debt fees. The bill will automatically restore voting rights to citizens immediately upon release from prison.

Voting rights advocates and directly-impacted activists celebrate this bill as a much-needed reform that gives people impacted by the criminal legal system a say in the decisions that affect their daily lives. Advocates also say the bill advances racial justice by reforming a felony disenfranchisement law rooted in racist history.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, believed to be the first formerly-incarcerated legislator in the country, and co-sponsored by Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor.

“[Rep. Tarra Simmons] is the reason this bill is before you right now,” said Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, the sponsor of the Senate companion bill, in a statement during the floor debate. “And her success story is what we want for all people who are completing their prison term. It’s about creating opportunities to make better lives for people who are exiting incarceration. For them and their families. Representative Simmons got that opportunity and look at what she’s done with it. Let’s give that opportunity to others as well by restoring their voices and their right to vote.”

A wide variety of testifiers also spoke unanimously in favor of the bill during its public hearings, including directly-impacted people, the Department of Corrections, survivor advocates, law enforcement, and local voting justice organizations. There was also widespread public support amongst Washington voters leading up to its passage, with an 87% approval rating that remained strong across political parties, regions, and demographics.

Many of the bill’s supporters pointed to the racist legacy of felony disenfranchisement laws, and the disproportionate impact of the criminal legal system on low-income, Black, and Indigenous voters. Like other historical restrictions on voting like poll taxes and literacy tests, Washington’s current policy has a greater impact on some communities of color. According to the Department of Corrections, though Black and Indigenous people make up only 6% of the total state population, they comprise more than 16% of people under community supervision.

“Not addressing felony disenfranchisement will continue to exacerbate the real systemic consequences that already exist for Black Americans and other communities of color by disproportionately limiting their right to vote,” said Yasmin Trudeau, the legislative director for the Attorney General’s Office, in her testimony supporting the bill. “If there’s anything we’ve learned from the outcry in the streets over the past year, it’s time to do better.”

The Washington State Voting Rights Restoration Coalition, which has advocated for this legislation for several years, applauded Washington lawmakers for passing this expansion of voting rights while other state legislatures in the US are pushing to restrict access to the ballot.

“Today’s decision has sparked hope in our communities,” said Kelly Olson, policy manager with the Civil Survival Project. “Our criminal legal system has kept our friends and neighbors silenced for too long. Now, people can return to their communities with a political voice and a sense of belonging to our democracy.”

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