ACLU of WA Supports New Legislation to Restore Voting Rights to Ex-Felons

February 24, 2003

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

OLYMPIA, WA -- Saying that tens of thousands of people in the state are denied the right to vote solely because of outstanding financial obligations, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington today applauded the introduction of legislation that would enable ex-felons to regain the right to vote once they have completed their punishment, even though they may still be paying off monetary debts. 

"The right to vote is vital to citizenship. People should not be barred from exercising this right simply because they are impoverished," said Kathleen Taylor, Executive Director of the ACLU of Washington, noting that the law has a disproprotionate effect on people of color. 

House Bill 2054 was introduced by state legislators today with the enthusiastic backing of the League of Women Voters of Washington, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the ACLU. The legislation, introduced by state Representative Jeannie Darneille and nine other lawmakers, has also been endorsed by a number of other community organizations.

Under Washington law, felons who have served all their time are still not allowed to vote until they have paid all court-imposed fines and monetary penalties. These debts can include penalty assessments, docket and filing fees, court costs, court-appointed attorney fees, restitution and compensation, and costs of incarceration. The debt compounds at an annual rate of 12 percent. The size of the court-imposed debt is unrelated to the severity of the offense; persons who commit a property crime can face much higher financial obligations than persons convicted of a violent offense.

Disenfranchisement can even become permanent, the ACLU noted. If a person is unable to pay off the obligation within 10 years, or the Washington Department of Corrections decides that he or she will not be able to pay off the debt in that time, the person is permanently unable to vote.

As a result of the current law, nearly four percent of Washington's total eligible voting population cannot vote. This is almost double the national average for ex-felon disenfranchisement. 

According to a 1998 report by the Sentencing Project, an estimated 150,000 people who have been convicted of felonies in the state are permanently or temporarily disenfranchised. This, combined with racial disparity in the state's rate of incarceration, results in approximately one-fourth of all African-American males in Washington being unable to vote.

House Bill 2054 restores the right to vote to ex-felons once they have completed their punishment, even though they may still be paying off monetary debts. Under the bill, ex-felons are still required to pay court-imposed financial obligations; those obligations, however, will no longer bar them from registering and exercising the right to vote. 

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