The controversy surrounding the voting rights of criminals escalates in Olympia.

In an effort to restore the rights of individuals incarcerated for felony crimes in Washington prisons, state lawmakers are considering a new bill that would allow them to vote, serve on a jury, and even run for office. This potential legislation aims to provide a second chance and promote inclusivity within the criminal justice system.

House Bill 2030 (HB 2030) had its public hearing in the State Government & Tribal Relations committee on Tuesday. The bill aims to grant incarcerated individuals in state prisons the right to vote and serve on a jury.

Currently, Washington’s constitution prohibits individuals convicted of “infamous crimes,” which include felonies leading to state or federal prison sentences, from exercising these rights during their time in incarceration.

The state has already taken steps to address this issue by passing a measure in 2022 that restores voting rights immediately upon release from prison. (You can view a PDF of the bill here.)

Seattle’s locally-based social media has been buzzing with open discussions about the bill.

Prisoners would get to vote under bill backed by formerly incarcerated WA lawmaker
by u/pacwess in SeattleWA

Rep. Tarra Simmons, a Democrat from Bremerton and the primary sponsor of the bill, is determined to take it one step further. As someone who has personally experienced incarceration, Simmons has been advocating for this policy ever since she took office as a lawmaker in 2020.

According to her testimony before the committee, she emphasized that in America, the revocation of voting rights is deeply rooted in racism. She compared mass incarceration to a modern-day form of slavery, stating that other countries do not strip individuals of their voting rights when they are convicted of a crime or incarcerated.

There was a strong vocal opposition to the bill. Republican lawmakers are firmly against the notion, arguing that it is not the appropriate time to contemplate such a measure, especially when violent crime is escalating in Washington.

Republican Rep. Greg Cheney (R-Battle Ground) criticized the bill, stating that it allows individuals who are currently serving a felony sentence for vehicular homicide or vehicular assault to serve on a jury panel for DUI charges. According to Cheney, this idea is “absurd on its face.”

Cheney, together with Rep. Sam Low and Rep. Leonard Christian, highlighted an important aspect of the bill. They pointed out that the bill seeks to narrow down the definition of an infamous crime to only include “a state crime punishable by death.”

However, they noted that in 2018, the Washington Supreme Court ruled the death penalty as unconstitutional, and Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill to formally abolish it in April last year. As a result, HB 2030 would effectively grant voting rights to every incarcerated person, as stated by the three lawmakers.

During the hearing, he asked Simmons if Gary Ridgway’s rights would be restored with this bill.  “Absolutely,” she replied.

According to Brian Hatfield, spokesperson for Democratic Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, there are concerns about the legislation from both Republicans and Democrats. Hatfield explains that their interpretation of the legislation allows individuals serving felony sentences to run for office, which Hobbs strongly objects to.

Hobbs believes that individuals should not have their voting rights restored until they have fully paid their debt to society. Additionally, Hatfield raises logistical concerns about the transportation of individuals from prison to serve on juries or fulfill the responsibilities of an elected office.

In a unique twist, even those currently incarcerated were given a platform to voice their thoughts. Testifying via Zoom from the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, these individuals shared their perspectives.

Correcting a Historical Injustice

Charles Longshore, a Skokomish tribal member currently serving a sentence for second-degree murder, passionately expressed his support for the bill. In his testimony, he highlighted the alarming reality that indigenous people in Washington face the highest incarceration rates among all races and ethnicities.

Longshore emphasized the significance of recognizing his status as a member of the state’s original people, stating, “Regardless of my incarceration, I should still have a voice. It’s disheartening to be fighting for the basic right to vote in 2024 simply because I am Native American.” His powerful words underscore the urgent need to rectify this historical injustice.

During his testimony, he expressed to the lawmakers that he has reached a stage in his life where he has successfully undergone rehabilitation but still experiences a sense of disenfranchisement. Derrick Jones, the president of the Black Prisoners Caucus at the WCC, shared the same feelings.

“I’ve spent 26 years behind bars,” Jones expressed passionately, as he pleaded with lawmakers to contemplate the profound effects of the bill on individuals like himself. “Once a person becomes aware of their social responsibility, they start feeling a sense of connection to something bigger than themselves.”

“I’ve unfortunately witnessed the heartbreaking consequences of isolation, seeing how individuals can feel disconnected and silenced.”

During the committee meeting, Rep. Simmons expressed his agreement, emphasizing that there is no risk to public safety associated with expanding civil rights. He confidently stated, “They’re not going to use their ballot to commit a crime or hold someone up. So, I truly question why we would take it away.”

Around 4.6 million individuals in the United States are currently unable to exercise their right to vote due to a felony conviction. In Washington alone, there are approximately 13,000 individuals serving time in prisons, with not all of them being citizens.

By implementing HB 2030, Washington would join the ranks of Maine, Vermont, and the District of Columbia as one of the few places in the country that allow prisoners to participate in the voting process.

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MBS Staff
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