Legislature was smart in felon voting measure

Felons who have been released from custody and are no longer on community supervision will have their voting rights restored under a bill passed by the Legislature.

Simply put, House Bill 1517 rights a wrong.

Under existing law anyone convicted of a felony loses his or her voting rights. Those rights cannot be restored until all sentencing conditions have been met, primarily the completion of confinement and the payment of fines, restitution and court costs.

The latter condition — requiring all financial obligations be met — has prevented many of the state’s 250,000 felons from reregistering and voting. Most of them are indigent and simply can’t afford to pay their court costs with a single check.

We believe, and the Legislature agreed, that there is no good reason to deny voting rights simply on a felon’s inability to pay.

When this issue was raised a year ago, Gov. Chris Gregoire said: “Once they have served their time, withholding certain rights due to fines becomes a virtual debtors’ prison.”

An editorial in The New York Times three years ago called Washington’s system “a form of disenfranchisement that is straight out of Oliver Twist.” The editorial said, “Washington’s policy of stripping people of their right to vote until they can cough up enough money to pay these unfair charges is morally outrageous.”

Many Republicans see things differently. Rep. Gary Alexander, who represents Lewis and southern Thurston County in the Legislature, joined his fellow House Republicans voting against HB 1517. “I’ve heard from many victims who say, ‘I’m still feeling the pain. ... Don’t restore any of their rights to vote unless they have paid their restitution,’ ” Alexander said.

With passage of HB 1517, felons no longer have to meet all of their financial obligations before they can register. The measure, supported by Secretary of State Reed, a number of county auditors, the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union, church groups and others, says that once released from state custody, convicted felons can register to vote.

An amendment tacked on in the Senate makes the registration “provisional,” however. The right to vote can be revoked if the ex-con willfully refuses to pay court costs, fines or restitution. Failure to make three payments in a 12-month period puts the felon’s voting status in jeopardy.

A crime victim or a county clerk can petition the county prosecutor who must ask a judge to revoke voting privileges of the felon.

That’s a reasonable compromise because anyone making a good faith effort to pay court assessments can continue to vote.

To safeguard against felons voting, the legislation requires the secretary of state to twice a year check voter registration lists against a list of felons ineligible to vote. Any match will automatically result in the felon being dropped from the voting rolls.

After passage of the bill, Secretary Reed applauded the vote. “I’m pleased that our Legislature has approved this voting restoration bill. It will give us a clearer system for tracking when ex-felons are eligible or ineligible. We all want good, clean voter registration rolls, and this bill really helps.”

Reed said HB 1517 also promotes responsible civic behavior.

“We know that nearly all inmates do return to their home communities and it is important that they become re-engaged in positive ways, including voting,” Reed said. “This is a way to reduce repeat-crime and protect citizens. We will continue to strongly support victims’ rights and expect ex-felons to pay restitution in a timely fashion.”

In a joint newspaper column, former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske and John Lovick, Snohomish County sheriff, made a similar point.

The two law enforcement officers said: “Voting is an important way to connect people to their communities, which in turn helps them avoid going back to crime. One study showed former offenders who vote are 50 percent less likely to commit new crimes than those who don’t vote. We want those who leave prison to become productive and law-abiding citizens. Voting puts them on that path.”

No one is arguing that felons shouldn’t pay court costs, fines and restitution to their victims. But failure to pay should not be a barrier to voting and that’s why lawmakers were right to pass the voting restoration legislation.