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Restoring Voting Rights for the Formerly Incarcerated

October 30, 2019

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications

Portrait of Connor Barker

Connor Barker will be registering to vote after his community supervision ends in December. He’s excited to regain his voting rights so he can “feel like a normal citizen again.” (Rachel Friederich, DOC Communications)

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TUMWATER – Connor Barker is looking forward to when he can next cast his ballot. The 26-year-old won’t be able to cast his vote on Election Day next week because he’s completing his last months of community supervision for a drug charge.

But after December 6th, he’ll again be able to make decisions on which local and national candidates he wants to represent him and the laws that impact the state.

“I just want to feel like a normal citizen again,” said Barker, who has been a registered voter since he turned 18 and voted consistently in every election he could until his arrest. “I feel like I’ve paid my dues, done my time and paid all my fines. I think it’s important to be part of the process.”

What the Law Says

Washington state law currently allows anyone convicted of a felony to restore their voting rights after they complete Department of Corrections supervision. The law also says the right to vote is “provisional,” meaning a county prosecutor can revoke a person’s voting rights if they fail to make payments on legal financial obligations that are part of a sentence. Legal financial obligations, or LFOs, can include fines, fees, victim restitution payments and any accrued interest.

However, some lawmakers are looking to change that. On October 22nd, the Senate Government, Tribal and Elections Committee held a work session in Kent on draft legislation that would drop the provisional LFO rule to restore someone’s voting rights completely regardless of whether they're on community supervision. David Elliott, policy director for the Secretary of State’s Office, spoke at the October 22nd session and said he found no evidence of anyone’s voting rights ever being denied because of failure to pay LFOs. It would also allow a person to restore their voting rights once they leave prison.

If the legislation becomes law, Washington would join 18 other states in which people may vote as long as they are not in prison, according to American Civil Liberties Union data. Two states-Maine and Vermont-grant every person the right to vote, regardless of having any form of correctional supervision. Only three states—Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia—permanently bar people with criminal convictions from voting. The rest of the states have a wide range of laws about restoring voting rights to people with criminal convictions.

The ‘Scarlet Letter’

Executive Director of the state’s Reentry Council, Christopher Poulos, also spoke at the work session in favor of the draft legislation. The Reentry Council has 15 members who represent a variety of organizations and constituents. It works to improve public safety and outcomes for justice-involved individuals reentering society.

Poulos shared his story about spending three years in a federal prison for a drug conviction before becoming an attorney.

He said the threat of losing one’s voting rights because of unpaid LFOs doesn’t deter people from committing a crime. Instead, he called it the “scarlet letter of collateral cause.”

“Just because a judge may have sentenced three years in prison and a $3,000 fine, it shouldn’t be able to haunt us for the rest of our lives,” Poulos said. “The only thing it does is it further separates people from society. Being engaged in a positive way in our communities is incredibly conducive to successful reintegration after incarceration.”

Corrections’ Role

The Department of Corrections has already taken steps to help people completing their supervision to get registered to vote. Senate Bill 5207 (pdf), which went into effect this year, requires correctional staff to provide written notice to every individual completing community supervision about the process for restoring voting rights. It includes a state voter registration form and instructions on how to complete it.

Jennifer Lynch is Barker’s community corrections officer. She says so far, Barker’s the only person on her caseload who has inquired about restoring his voting rights. She hopes more people will register to vote as they find out about their eligibility.

More than a legislative mandate, this work is part of the agency’s mission to improve public safety by positively changing lives, and consistent with one of its values: Supporting people's success by “understanding individuals, instilling hope, embracing change, and providing opportunities.”

“I don’t think a lot of people know about it, or are at that point in their lives where it’s something they care about,” Lynch said. “But these people returning to society are our neighbors and community members, so I think if you can assist somebody in becoming a productive member of society and help them be able to give back and be involved in their community and be successful, it’s a good feeling.”

At the Seattle Community Justice Center, Reverend Jimmie James of the BEST (Being Empowered through Supportive Transitions) program has partnered with Corrections and the Seattle Foundation to educate people about their voting rights and help them register. The effort, including an interview with Community Corrections Specialist Cynthia Softli, was recently featured on the Seattle Channel.

“Once people have paid their debt to society, then they should have the right to vote,” Softli said in her interview. “If it becomes too difficult for people to figure out how to vote, then sometimes people just give up.”

Making Voices Heard

Barker says he’s ready to make a difference in his community.

He’s attending South Puget Sound Community College to get his associate degree. Afterward, he wants to transfer to a university to earn a Master of Business Administration degree with plans for a career in real estate. He volunteers with a substance abuse recovery program to help himself and others stay sober.

Barker’s also written letters to legislators about struggles people with criminal convictions face when reentering society, such as disclosure of criminal records during job screening processes and finding housing.

“It’s important for me to advocate for people’s rights who are in the (justice) system. I’m of the belief that if you do the crime you do the time, but once it’s paid, it shouldn’t be a life sentence to prevent you from moving forward in your life,” Barker said. “Democracy is the corner of this nation’s founding. Your voice matters, no matter how small you think it is. Some people choose not to consent to the system, but we’re all affected by it. So why not make your voice heard?”