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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Felon voting bill good step as rights under attack

The Columbian
Published: March 1, 2021, 6:03am

A bill in the Washington Legislature throws a relatively minor punch in what is a major national battle. The House of Representatives has passed a measure that would restore voting rights to convicted felons who have served their time and are free.

House Bill 1078 would restore voting rights for felons serving community supervision; currently, they must wait until supervision has concluded. Even then, voting rights can be revoked if the ex-offender fails to pay court-ordered fines or restitution. Such rights should not be linked to somebody’s ability to pay or whether they are caught up on their bills.

The bill passed the House by a 57-41 vote along party lines, with Democrats in support. Notably, it was introduced by first-term Rep. Tarra Simmons, who is believed to be the first former inmate selected for the Legislature. “When someone is trying to rebuild their life and feel like they are a real part of their community, it’s just common sense that we should give them the kinds of support that we can,” she said.

The Senate should recognize the wisdom in that statement and support the bill.

But while Washington wrestles with the voting rights of a relatively small percentage of the population, millions of voters across the nation risk being disenfranchised.

A report from the Brennan Center for Justice details that more than 100 bills designed to suppress voting have been introduced this year at the state level, with a vast majority of those coming from Republican lawmakers. This follows an election that saw the highest turnout in decades — in part because of increased absentee voting necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are seeing a backlash,” Eliza Sweren-Becker, the report’s lead author, told Vox.com. “Rather than going out and trying to persuade voters, we’re seeing legislators trying to shrink the electorate in order to ensure job security for themselves.”

Proposed legislation generally involves bills that would create additional hurdles to absentee voting or provide greater leeway for shrinking the voter pool through strict voter ID laws or the culling of voter rolls.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump continue to cling to The Big Lie that November’s election was fraudulent — claims unanimously rejected by the courts. Then-U.S. Attorney General William Barr said, “we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election,” and the Department of Homeland Security called the election “the most secure in American history.”

State-level efforts to make voting more difficult should inspire Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Advancement Act. Designed to restore part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013, it would help secure the system against racial discrimination.

For those who claim that such discrimination has been eliminated, we encourage an examination of how some states have closed polling places in largely minority neighborhoods.

Ideally, more states will adopt universal vote-by-mail, a system that has proven secure in Washington over the past two decades and for longer in Oregon. Instead, partisan legislative battles over voting rights are likely to continue in states that are not as enlightened as Washington.

Here, the current issue is whether felons who have served their time should be able to vote. They should. If somebody has paid their debt to society, they should be welcomed with the rights of full citizenship.