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From Jail Cell to 'Debtor's Prison,' WA Former Felons Pay for Voting Rights

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Weekly Voting Rights News Update

This an entry in a series of blogs to keep people informed on current election reform and voting rights issues in the news.

Featured Story of the Week:

Opinion: State's system for restoring voter rights unfair, unwieldy – The Seattle Times

"Once they have served their time, withholding certain rights due to fines becomes a virtual debtors' prison," Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire said after the state's re-enfranchisement law was upheld by the Supreme Court a few weeks ago. Gregoire's point was further emphasized this week in a Seattle Times opinion piece by the state American Civil Liberties Union executive director, Kathleen Taylor: “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.” With the presidential election approaching, felon disenfranchisement laws are a major issue to focus on and, hopefully, help change.

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The law restores former felon voting rights “only after payment of all court costs and other related financial obligations,” including interest, “which accrues at 12 percent per year.” Further, Taylor called the restoration system “broken” because of its complexity, especially during election times. For starters, records are not updated at the Department of Corrections once an offender is released. That, along with the the lack of interface with voter registration rolls and the accounting systems of the county court clerks (where the payments are made), election officials have trouble figuring out who still owes money, i.e., who may vote.

Statistically, however, it is clear “who” or what groups may not vote. The loss of voting rights has the most drastic affects on low income and minority citizens. “The vast majority of people convicted of crimes in Washington are poor when they enter prison, and are even poorer when they leave,” Taylor wrote. According to the ACLU of Washington website, “more than 90 percent of felony defendants are indigent at the time of charging.” The state's overall felony disenfranchisement rate is 3.6 percent of the state's total voting-age population. However, the greatest impact is seen among the black and Latinos with 17.2 and 10.6 percent of their populations disenfranchised, respectively. This trend isn't just evident in Washington, but other states with strict felon disenfranchisement laws. Based on statistics from the Sentencing Project, we found that nationally, blacks are three and a half times more likely to become disenfranchised than any other disenfranchised population.

As a resolution, Taylor called for automatic restoration to fix the “broken system.” Like nearby states, Oregon and Montana, this would restore the former felon's right to vote once their sentence is completed. About 15 states and the District of Columbia use this system while two – Maine and Vermont – do not disenfranchise felony offenders at all, according to this Project Vote report. The rest restrict former felon voting one way or another, some by prohibiting parolees from voting and others resort to the extreme of permanent disenfranchisement of all offenders.

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“Any other system requires election officials to become bogged down in a maze of paperwork, subject to mistakes and second guessing,” Taylor wrote. With lawmakers drafting automatic-restoration bills this past legislative session and the chance for consideration in 2008, Taylor said WA could have the broken system fixed without constitutional amendment. “And, we shouldn't wait to act until after the next major election.”

Project Vote recommends that voting rights be restored to felons upon release from prison. Restoration of the right to vote - regardless of status as a parolee or probationer - should be a fundamental part of an ex-offender's reintegration into society. Consistent policies are necessary to prevent large-scale disenfranchisement not only of the ex-offenders themselves, but also of the communities to which they belong. Society as a whole benefits when a representative government truly represents all citizens.

We’ve provided links below for more information on felon disenfranchisement.

Quick Links:
The Sentencing Project

“Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States.” The Sentencing Project. April 2007.

ACLU WA

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"Restoring Voting Rights to Former Felons." Project Vote. January 2007. [Note: As of July 1, Maryland changed its restrictive disenfranchisement law and now automatically restores voting rights of all former felons. More here.]

"Court: Felons can't vote until fines paid." The Seattle Times. July 27, 2007.

In Other News:

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