Washington state lawmakers have voted to automatically restore voting rights to people who have been released from prison after committing felonies, even if they’re still on parole.
With the support of majority Democrats, the state Senate passed the measure 27-22 Wednesday night, following earlier approval by the House. It now heads to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who is expected to sign it.
The main sponsor was Democratic Rep. Tarra Simmons of Bremerton, who was incarcerated before becoming a lawyer.
“Her success story is what we want for all people who are completing their prison term,” Sen. Patty Kuderer, a Democrat from Bellevue, said during the floor debate. “Let’s give that opportunity to others as well by restoring their voices and their right to vote.”
Supporters called it a matter of racial justice, considering the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on people of color. There are more than 20,000 people who stand to have their voting rights restored under the legislation.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, citing Department of Corrections data, said Black and Indigenous people make up 16% of those on parole, though they make up just 6% of the state's population.
Washington has been a leader in efforts to expand voting rights. It’s one of just five states with universal mail-in voting. It recently began allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote, permitting people to register as late as Election Day and automatically registering people when they interact with state agencies.
But some argued that Washington lagged in restoring voting rights to those convicted of felonies: 20 other states already allow people to vote while they're on parole following their release from prison. Colorado, Nevada and New Jersey passed measures in 2019, and California voters approved a constitutional amendment, Proposition 17, last November to automatically restore voting rights to people on parole.
Maine, Vermont and Washington, D.C., allow felons to vote while incarcerated.
In Washington, offenders haven’t been allowed to vote until they have completed their community supervision with the Department of Corrections, a period that can last up to three years for violent crimes. Offenders often live with friends or family, hold jobs and check in regularly with a parole officer during that time.
Senate Republicans opposed the measure despite support from many places, including the state attorney general's office, the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, some victims' rights advocates and Republican Rep. Jesse Young, who co-sponsored the bill.
Republican senators said former prisoners should complete their sentences — including parole — and show they can follow the law before they regain the right to vote. They offered amendments that would have exempted those convicted of child sex offenses or hate crimes involving firearms.
“These are people that should not have that right,” said Sen. Shelly Short, a Republican from Addy.
Democrats defeated the amendments, saying it would be a headache for county auditors to figure out who's allowed to vote if some offenders were exempted. Further, they said, the amount of time someone is in prison reflects the heinousness of their crime; if they are deemed safe enough to release from prison on parole, they should also be allowed to vote.
Simmons, the bill sponsor, was elected in November — apparently the first formerly incarcerated person elected to the Washington Legislature, if not the country. She was convicted of assault in 2001 and of drug and theft charges in 2011, after her father’s death sent her into a battle with methamphetamine.
After being released in 2013, she went to law school and won approval from the Washington Supreme Court to take the bar exam. She is executive director of the Civil Survival Project, which helps former prisoners reintegrate into society, and she and others have worked for years to win the restoration of voting rights for parolees.
“People need to feel included in their communities,” Simmons said Thursday. “Exercising their right to vote is how we share our voices and how we participate in our democracy.”