A bill that would automatically grant people with felony convictions the right to vote after they’re released passed the Washington House of Representatives last week, with two lawmakers from Clark County signing on as co-sponsors.
Currently, those convicted of a felony can regain the right to vote on a case-by-case basis once they’ve completed probation and paid any outstanding legal fees. If the bill is signed into law, sponsors estimate that 10,000 Washingtonians will see their voting rights immediately restored.
Rep. Monica Stonier, a Democrat from Vancouver and one of the bill’s 41 co-sponsors, said it’s a matter of principle regardless of the crime committed.
“Once people who have served their time in prison are working to reenter, they need all the motivation that they can get to be a contributing member of the community,” Stonier said. “Participating in the voting process is, I think, key to that.”
Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, also co-sponsored the bill. She’s felt strongly about the issue for years, she said.
“When I’ve been doorbelling, I’ve been really touched by the people that I talk to and they say, ‘I wish I could vote, but I can’t because I’m a felon,'” Wylie said. “It really means something to someone, to be able to vote and reenter society.”
Both lawmakers pointed out that voting restrictions on those with felony convictions unevenly disenfranchise people of color. Being barred from voting is just one of many ways that democracy can be harder to access for those groups, Stonier added. Multiple studies have indicated that Black and Latino people in particular face more systemic barriers at the polls, like stricter voter identification laws, than their white counterparts.
“People who are disproportionately impacted by the injustice of the system also have been the same populations that are disproportionately impacted by limited voting access,” Stonier said.
House Bill 1078 passed 57 to 41 on Feb. 24 with bipartisan support after more than two hours of virtual floor debate. The four other representatives who represent Clark County voters — Brandon Vick, Larry Hoff, Vicki Kraft and Paul Harris, all Republicans — each voted nay.
Opponents argued that restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies is fundamentally unfair in extreme cases.
“Why is it that a murderer under this bill can take away the ability to vote of its victim?” asked Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale. “As a society, is this the message we want to (send)? Those people who were murdered will never have a right to go to the polls.”
Shortly after the bill passed, the ACLU of Washington lauded the outcome in a media release.
“For too long, people impacted by our criminal legal system have faced overwhelming barriers as they return to their communities — barriers to employment, housing and other critical aspects of their lives,” the release stated. “It is critical that state Senators act quickly on this bill to ensure Washington no longer bars our neighbors who are living in our communities and paying taxes from participating in the democratic process.”
Last year, a similar bill died in the 11th hour when Senate Democrats realized it lacked the votes to pass and abruptly halted debate.
This time around, Wylie said she’s fairly optimistic that the bill will make it to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk by the end of the session. Legislators are pushing equity-related bills to the top of the pile after witnessing months of sustained anti-racism protests.
The slowed pace of governing during a remote session — a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic — also means that the Senate has to remain laser-focused on its priorities, Wylie added, which could work in the bill’s favor.
“There will be fewer bills, and I think this is going to be a priority — partly because equity is a priority for both the House and the Senate this year,” Wylie said. “Anything having to do with prison and re-entry is going to have a disparate impact on people of color.”
The bill was referred to the Senate Government and Elections Committee on Tuesday.