Debt to Society? the Washington State Legislature's Efforts to Restore Voting Rights to Persons with Felony Convictions

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Nearly a half-century has passed since President Lyndon Johnson declared, "[t]his right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless." (1) However, only two states allow this "basic right" to extend unequivocally to citizens regardless of whether or not they are incarcerated. (2) Washington, like forty-seven other states in the Union, revokes a citizen's right to vote while imprisoned on a felony conviction. Although many states have tempered their felony voting laws over the past decade, (3) state legislatures on balance remain committed to the disenfranchisement of those who are in prison or on probation. (4)

Fewer states disenfranchise persons no longer serving a criminal sentence. In fact, prior to May 2009, Washington was one of only ten states to require payment of all legal financial obligations, such as restitution and court fees, before persons with felony convictions could vote again. (5) With the enactment of H.B. 1517, the Voting Rights Restoration Act, Washington now automatically restores voting rights to persons with felony convictions as soon as they complete their criminal sentences. (6) Previously, the state denied voting rights to persons with felony convictions who had completed their mandated terms of prison, probation, or parole, but who still owed fees and costs associated with their sentence, including interest. (7) But thanks to the legislative compromise embodied in H.B. 1517, Washington now has a simpler and more compassionate system for determining voter eligibility for formerly incarcerated persons.

Even with H.B. 1517 now part of state law, restoring the voting rights of tens of thousands of Washington citizens, questions still loom as to whether this law has gone far enough: Has the burden on former felons really been eliminated? What obstacles remain to the permanent restoration of voting rights for persons with felony convictions in Washington? In order to answer these questions, this Note will sketch the backdrop against which H.B. 1517 was introduced, recount the bill's legislative history, examine the positive and negative effects of the new law, and briefly discuss the potential for future reforms in light of national trends to reduce the severity of felony disenfranchisement laws.

I. WASHINGTON'S PRIOR FELONY DISENFRANCHISEMENT SCHEME AND FAILED COURT CHALLENGES TO THAT SCHEME

In a region of the country known for its progressive views toward felony voting rights, (8) Washington's felony disenfranchisement rate is remarkably one-and-a-half times the national average and seven times as high as neighboring Oregon. (9) Nearly one in five of the state's African Americans cannot vote because of a felony conviction, more than twice the frequency of California. (10) Much of this statistical disparity stems from the relatively draconian felony disenfranchisement scheme that existed in Washington prior to the enactment of H.B. 1517.

Washington's felony disenfranchisement scheme derives its authority from the state constitution, which proscribes persons convicted of an "infamous crime" from voting in any election unless their civil rights have been restored. (11) Moreover, all felonies fit Washington's constitutional definition of an infamous crime because they are "punishable by... imprisonment in a state correctional facility." (12) At the time H.B. 1517 was introduced, the state restored voting rights to persons with felony convictions only after they fully completed the requirements of their sentence, including payment of all legal financial obligations (LFOs). (13) These LFOs may include victim restitution, crime victims' compensation fees, costs of defense, court-appointed attorneys' fees, and fines. (14) Under the prior law, the county clerk would notify the sentencing court when all of the LFOs had been paid, and the court would then issue a certificate of discharge restoring the offender's right to vote. …