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State lawmakers to consider expanding voting rights to more people with felony convictions

A voter drops a ballot into a ballot drop box Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016, in Seattle.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press
A voter drops a ballot into a ballot drop box Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016, in Seattle.

A bill up for consideration in the upcoming legislative session could make voting easier in Washington state for thousands of people convicted of felonies. If passed, it would expand voting rights to those in community custody.

A person in community custody is out of prison, but still being supervised by the Department of Corrections. Under current law in Washington, people with felony convictions have their voting rights restored after they complete community custody as long as they keep up with payments on their legal financial obligations.

Democratic state Sen. Patty Kuderer from Bellevue is sponsoring a bill that would restore voting rights to people as soon they get out of prison, regardless of their legal debt payments and community custody status.

"There are so many people who are on community custody right now who are trying to re-enter community in a very meaningful way," Kuderer said. "They now have a stake in their community when they have the right to vote."

There are more than 21,000 people in community custody, according to the state Deparment of Corrections. Kuderer says her bill would affect most of those people.

During a legislative work session last week, King County Elections Director Julie Wise told state senators that there's a lot of confusion over the current law. She says Kuderer's bill would make things simpler.

"We've heard stories from numerous voters that have been eligible to vote for 20, 25, 30 years that have never registered," Wise said. "The current law really lacks clarity, and if it lacks clarity, we are going to disenfranchise people that maybe the law is not even intended for."

Washington is in the middle of the pack when it comes to voting rights for people who have been incarcerated. Vermont and Maine allow inmates to vote from prison. Other states take away voting rights permanently.

Washington eased restrictions for those with felony convictions about a decade ago. Before 2009, a person had to pay off all of their legal debt and get an official certificate of discharge before they could register to vote. The current law restores provisional voting rights automatically, but they can be revoked if someone fails to stay up-to-date on their payments.

Some voting-rights advocates say requiring any payments to maintain voting rights amounts to a poll tax. 

David Elliott with the Secretary of State's office told lawmakers last week that, to his knowledge, no one in Washington has had their voting rights revoked as a result of failing to keep up with legal debt payments.

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.