Protestors hold blue and yellow signs that read "EX-FELON VOTING BANS: RACIST THEN, RACIST NOW"

OPINION: Voting Rights Restoration Bill’s Passage Brings Hope to Our Formerly Incarcerated Communities

by Datyous Mahmoudian

As someone who has experienced incarceration, I see voting rights restoration as a mark of good government. It sent me the message that “I matter” instead of reinforcing the stigma and second-class citizenship that are often experienced when people like me reenter our communities. 

The recent passage of House Bill 1078 by our state legislature has cultivated a strong wave of hope and optimism from current and formerly incarcerated communities and their allies in Washington State. This new law will give new opportunity to thousands of politically disenfranchised people who want to make their voices heard by casting a vote for those who create the laws that govern our lives.

Currently, Washingtonians with past felony convictions cannot vote for the months or years that we are on community supervision, and we can have our rights revoked if we are unable to pay off our court debt. House Bill 1078 will instead automatically restore voting rights to all citizens as soon as they return home from prison. When Governor Inslee signs the bill into law, more than 20,000 voters living in our communities will immediately be brought back into our democracy. 

This new law allows people reentering their communities to exercise their right to redemption. Societal benefits include reducing the number of people returning to the system and, therefore, the number of those victimized. It also has particular benefits for our communities of color that are disproportionately represented in formerly incarcerated populations.

Unlike many, I did not serve a term of community supervision. I could immediately vote when I returned home from prison — having my right to vote restored instilled a sense of pride in our nation in me. I built confidence in myself and a greater sense of connection with my community and could feel what it was like to be a citizen again.

My family came to the U.S. in 1998 for religious freedom. Voting is a way that I show my gratitude and give back to our country. I want to be in a position where I’m able to teach my future children voting rights history and that their parents participate in the voting process to foster a positive mindset toward the political system and society at large.

When released, however, many people face an uphill battle in a world full of barriers that did not exist before they became incarcerated. There are many costs to consider, including direct costs like court-ordered fines and fees. There are also emotional, cultural, and societal costs that cannot be calculated. 

Disenfranchisement is another barrier that can keep us from feeling like we belong when we return to our communities. Although I could vote immediately, thousands of other formerly incarcerated people have had to wait months or years after leaving prison to have their rights restored. Some people even have a life sentence of community supervision, meaning that they would never vote again — just one more reason why we need this new law.

For the formerly incarcerated community, there is so much that already places us at a disadvantage. We have gaps in employment that make it challenging to find a job. We have to give up time with family members, delay our higher education, or wait to travel to new places while on community supervision or paying off court debt. 

I recently spoke with someone who had left prison after 18 years. Their court debt is around $23,000 and has been steadily accruing interest. In the months since they were released from prison, they have not been able to find employment because of their age and a physical condition that has impacted their ability to work long hours. Even in an optimal scenario where they could have found a job making $20 an hour, it would have taken nearly seven years for them to pay off their court debt and be able to vote.

Restoring voting rights means one less obstacle to worry about for people impacted by our criminal legal system. It will restore a sense of empowerment, responsibility, and independence to our community. Because of the traumatic environment we experienced in the criminal legal system, many people like me return home with ideas and a vision for making the system better. Now, we will be able to act on our ideas and speak our vision into existence.

After serving my time, I was able to assimilate into society successfully because of the level of support I received from my university, church, family, and employment communities. With this level of support, I felt a sense of greater connection to society, and I could visually see the benefits of reducing the number of people returning to the system. With my right to vote restored, I could become more involved in my community and feel like my opinions mattered. 

When I first started sharing my story, I wanted to create change and pay it forward, but I was concerned with how people would react. In the business and technology world where I work, people read many negative articles that I feel are not an accurate representation of the person I am today.

At the University of Washington, I was given the agency to articulate my values. I founded several organizations and contributed to many events and programs. For the first time in years, I felt like my voice still mattered and began looking at the surrounding world with optimism. I envision the same remarkable experience for others released back into our society. With the governor’s signature on House Bill 1078, it can become a reality.

Datyous Mahmoudian is a business student, the founder of Collegiate Community Transitions at the University of Washington, and a formerly incarcerated individual. He wrote this op-ed on behalf of the Washington State Voting Rights Restoration Coalition.

Featured image is attributed to Michael Fleshman (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0 license).

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