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With Her Voting Rights Back, A Formerly Incarcerated Woman Seeks To Participate

Parker Miles Blohm
Rebekah Brown at her home in Des Moines, Wash.

This story is part of KNKX's series "Five Voters, Fresh Perspectives." We're looking at the 2018 election through the eyes of five people who are at a turning point in their lives.

For most of us, it's a choice whether we want to vote. But if you've committed a felony in Washington state, that choice can be taken away for a few years after you get out prison.

Having that right taken and then given back changed how Rebekah Brown felt about voting.

'I did whatever I had to do'

Brown, 28, has been out of prison for a few years. She's proud of her job, loves her fiancee and  adores her two-year-old son.

On a recent fall day, her son played with some old helium balloons, remnants of a celebration congratulating Brown for hitting five years clean. She said she started doing drugs when she was 14 years old. When asked about her drug of choice, she just said, "everything."

She says the drugs led to more crime, putting her in and out of jail for various misdemeanors.

"Stealing, I prostituted some times, all of the above, honestly," Brown said. "I did whatever I had to do to support my habit and to survive."

Eventually, Brown says she and another person got a gun and tried to rob someone. That's what landed her at the women's prison in Gig Harbor, commonly known as Purdy.

She spent two years there starting in 2013. Then she spent two years in what's called community custody, a type of probation received after the completion of prison time. (Unlike many other states, Washington does not have "parole.")

"I think we got a piece of paper when I was getting sentenced showing that we had no voting rights anymore," Brown said. "And I was like, 'Oh! Another thing that gets taken away.'"

'I'm a good citizen now.'

Every state is different when it comes to voting rights for people who commit felonies. Vermont and Maine, for example, allow inmates to vote from prison. In some states, usually depending on the crime, a person can risk losing their voting rights permanently.

Washington falls somewhere in between. Voting rights are automatically restored once someone gets out of prison and completes community custody. They can just register to vote without having to prove anything to anyone. But those rights can be revoked again if someone stops paying their legal financial obligations.

Brown finished up her community custody last year, and she says prison has changed her perspective. Part of that was getting clean, but there was also something about being locked up and having rights taken away that just made her see things differently.

"It was totally rock bottom being told what you can and cannot do," Brown said. "You take your life for granted. I had relatives die while I was incarcerated. I never got to say goodbye to my grandma and that really hit me."

In other words: While she was getting in trouble or while she was locked up, things were still happening in the world.

That idea really hit home in 2016. Brown was out of prison at that point, but she was still unable to vote in the presidential election, despite wanting to support Hillary Clinton. She says trying to follow politics is interesting now.

"Before I didn't really care, but now it is because it's what's going on," she said. "I want to be involved and I want to know what's going on in this world because I'm living in it."

She now has reasons to follow the news. Her son makes her want to know what schools are up to. She's wary of higher taxes and is thinking about supporting an initiative that would ban local taxes on food and beverages. She also says she supports gun control in part because it was having a gun that led her to prison in the first place.

"I'm a good citizen today," Brown said. "I pay my taxes. I go to work every day. I'm just excited to finally be able to vote again, and even though it's just one vote for me, at least I know I tried and I'm voting for stuff I believe in."

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.