by Jeff Nachtigal
Tuesday, March 10th is a new day for voters in Washington. It is the state’s first presidential primary election. And, despite the fact that the field of candidates has whittled down, Washington voters do have a say. Will the recent decisive primary wins continue for Joe Biden or will Washington follow our 2016 caucus results that gave Bernie Sanders a 73% victory?
But there remains a section of Washingtonians who don’t know if they’ll be eligible to participate in Tuesday’s primary vote. People with felony convictions often don’t realize they regain their eligibility to vote after serving their sentence.
Whether it be a lack of communication before their release from prison, the vague idea that they’ve “lost” their right to vote, or the jumble of legalese concerning when they regain eligibility, many people with felony convictions either don’t know or aren’t clear about their right to vote after getting out of prison.
Jamie Hawk, an attorney with the Washington state American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU), often has conversations with people who think they can never vote again.
“I can’t vote,” someone will say.
“Why is that”? Hawk asks.
“I have a felony.”
“Are you under community custody?” Hawk asks.
“No, but I have a certain class of felony.”
“That doesn’t matter!” Hawk will repeat with many people with felony convictions.
According to Hawk, there’s still a lot of confusion about the current state of the law. Hawk is Legal Strategy Director with the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice that works on prison reform. She says that many people with felony convictions think they can never vote or that not being able to pay off their fines and fees makes them ineligible.
To add to the confusion, there are differences in federal and state voting requirements.
The law is clear, wrote Kylie Zabel, communications director for the Secretary of State, which manages elections in Washington.
If you were convicted of a felony in Washington state, your right to vote is restored as long as you are not in prison or on community custody (also referred to as parole).
In Washington State, community custody is determined at sentencing. A typical custody length spans one to three years, and no one is allowed to vote until custody is completed. The penalty for voting while under custody is stiff: a felony charge and a sentence of up to 5 years in prison.
It is this “extra” community custody time, tacked on after completion of a felony prison sentence, that adds to the confusion about voting according to Hawk. And, “if somebody can’t vote for another three years, is that going to mean anything?” Hawk asked. Studies do show that the ability to vote is one metric important to the successful re-entry back into society.
People who are convicted of felonies know this because they are required to sign a form acknowledging they have lost their right to vote, and the penalty for voting before completing their sentence.
People convicted of a felony outside of Washington state, or in federal court, are automatically eligible to vote in Washington State if they are not incarcerated for that felony. Completing community custody is not required to vote.
Despite the confusion and lack of information, the bottom line is that people with felony convictions can exercise their right to vote.
Jeff Nachtigal is a freelance journalist, media producer and professor. He most recently produced a weekly program, “News & Views,” on South End community radio station, KVRU 105.7 FM.