Prisoners would get to vote under bill backed by formerly incarcerated WA lawmaker

Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Kitsap, is the first formerly incarcerated legislator in Washington state. (Courtesy of House Democrats)

An estimated 4.6 million people in the United States cannot vote due to a felony conviction. Washington has already taken steps to change that, having restored voting rights to incarcerated people convicted of felonies immediately upon release in 2022.

But Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Kitsap, said that’s not enough. The next step, she believes, should be allowing all Washington prisoners to vote.

“If you are learning about candidates and learning about issues that are bigger than yourself, then you are on the path to rehabilitation,” said Simmons, the first formerly incarcerated state legislator, during a committee hearing on Tuesday.

House Bill 2030 would effectively allow anyone incarcerated in a state prison to vote or sit on a jury. It only bans prisoners from voting who are convicted of a crime punishable by death. In Washington, a 2018 court decision determined capital punishment was unconstitutional, and Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill last April that abolished the death penalty in state law.

There are around 13,000 people in Washington’s prisons, although not all of them are citizens. If Washington enacts HB 2030, it would join only Maine, Vermont and the District of Columbia in allowing prisoners to vote.

Advocates say voting should be an inalienable right, regardless of incarceration status, and that allowing prisoners to vote will help reduce recidivism. Studies show prisoners are less likely to reoffend if they feel invested in their communities. Preventing prisoners from voting also disproportionately affects Black and Indigenous communities in Washington, who have higher rates of incarceration.

Simmons also said the legislation will help lawmakers see prisoners as constituents. She’s been pushing for the policy since she became a lawmaker in 2020.

But Republicans are unconvinced Simmons’ proposal is a good idea. They’ve voiced concerns about violent criminals voting and acting as irresponsible jurors.

“I disagree with your premise of racism. When I heard this bill, read this bill, I thought of one person: Gary Ridgway,” said Rep. Sam Low, R-Lake Stevens, referencing a serial killer who murdered at least 49 teenage girls and women in Washington. “Would Gary Ridgway’s rights be restored?”

“Yes, they would,” Simmons replied.

‘Righting a historical wrong’

The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate and some of the most restrictive criminal voting disenfranchisement laws among modern democracies. It wasn’t until the end of the Civil War and the expansion of voting rights to Black men that felonies became a major obstacle to the ballot box, according to a Brennan Center for Justice report. 

“Lawmakers — especially in the South — implemented a slew of criminal laws designed to target Black citizens,” writes Brennan Center researcher Erin Kelley. “And nearly simultaneously, many states enacted broad disenfranchisement laws that revoked voting rights from anyone convicted of any felony.”

Charles Longshore, an incarcerated Skokomish tribal member, told lawmakers the bill does more than give incarcerated people the right to vote: “It’s righting a historical wrong,” he said. Indigenous people, he pointed out, are incarcerated at the highest rate of any race or ethnicity in Washington.

“Regardless of incarceration, I’m a member of our state’s original people. That should count for something. I shouldn’t be here in 2024 fighting for an Indian to have the right to vote,” he said.

“I’m at a point in my life where I’m rehabilitated, but I feel disenfranchised,” Longshore added. “I don’t feel as equally important to those in our community. Yet I am a community member. I’m working hard to be part of my community.”

Raymond Williams, a white member of the Black Prisoners Caucus, said he lost his right to vote before he turned 18 due to Washington’s three strikes law, which sentences anyone convicted of three serious felonies to life without parole. The list of eligible felonies included unarmed robberies until 2021. 

“Serving life without the possibility of parole has been described as ‘civil death.’ I’ve never even been given the opportunity for civil birth,” Williams said.

“I face living my entire existence in a country that’s lecturing the world about democracy, while having never participated in it,” he added.

Republicans, Secretary of State skeptical

Simmons said there’s no public safety risk to allowing prisoners to vote.

“They’re not going to use their ballot to commit a crime,” Simmons said. “They’re not going to use their ballot to hold somebody up.”

But Republicans and a representative of the secretary of state’s office questioned whether restoring voting rights to all prisoners would be responsible. Brian Hatfield, who testified on behalf of Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, said the office’s interpretation of the legislation suggests that people serving felony sentences could run for office.

Hatfield raised a number of logistical concerns and said Hobbs has “strong objections” to giving voting rights to those “who have not yet paid their debt to society.”

“People gaining voting rights under this bill would include those serving life sentences. Those are people who a court has found can never earn the right to live without supervision,” Hatfield said.

Rep. Greg Cheney, R-Battle Ground, said he was “deeply troubled” by the idea of prisoners sitting on juries. (Lawyers can request a judge to dismiss a potential juror if they believe a juror has specific experiences that might cause them to be biased or unfair.)

Cheney also suggested it would be “hurting democracy” to allow Longshore, who was convicted of second-degree murder, to vote. He asked one advocate, Abigail Leong of WA Voting Justice Coalition, if she believes Longshore should be allowed to sit on a jury of a person accused of murder.

“Yes, I think our democracy is strongest when every citizen has their voice heard,” Leong replied. Leong said people bring up extreme crimes to villainize prisoners or take away voting rights for large groups of people.

“Your humanity is not defined by the worst decision you’ve ever made in your life,” she said.

Low repeatedly brought up Gary Ridgway, also known as the Green River Killer, at one point asking Cindy Madigan of the League of Women Voters of Washington if it was the position of the organization that Ridgway should have his voting rights restored.

“Gary Ridgway took the voting rights of 49 to 70 women,” Low said.

Madigan told him that she agreed with previous testimony that extreme cases like Ridgway’s are “not necessarily relevant to the rights of the majority of citizens who may not have done that level of crime.”

Williams said it’s easy to understand concerns about people like Ridgway voting. But he asked lawmakers to consider “all the other people who are cast into that same category.”

“We’re not all Gary Ridgway,” Williams said.

by Grace Deng, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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