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Bill in Olympia would remove voting rights barriers for former felons

When a person is convicted of a felony in Washington state, they lose their right to vote. After they've paid their price and leave prison, that right is not automatically restored.

First, they have to complete any community supervision that is required by the court. They also have to make payments on their financial obligations, like court fees or restitution.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Now, Washington state lawmakers are considering a new law that would change all that. Democratic Representative Tarra Simmons is the bill's sponsor. The bill has already passed the state House and is now making its way through the Senate. Simmons says she is optimistic it will pass and become law while talking with KUOW's Kim Malcolm.

Tarra Simmons: As soon as a person leaves the 24-hour confinement of prison, their right to vote will be automatically restored. It will be a huge impact for the community of formerly incarcerated people who are either on probation, on community custody, or unable to make payments on their legal financial obligations.

How many folks do you think would be affected by this change?

The Department of Corrections has given us numbers that show that currently 26,000 people would be immediately re-enfranchised, allowed to vote under current laws. It will be a huge number of people right away.

You've said this bill is personal for you. You're the first-ever elected state lawmaker who's been previously convicted of a felony. You've since graduated from law school. If you had been able to vote immediately after you completed your prison term, how would that have impacted you?

Voting is one thing that, if you're involved in your civic duties, you're not thinking about committing crimes. You're making positive choices, learning about candidates and issues. You're finding a new passion.

I think that would have been really meaningful for me, at a period of my life when I had little hope, and I didn't feel like I was welcomed back into the community. Giving somebody their right to vote back also sends the message that you are part of our community, and we welcome you home, and we want to support you in making positive changes in your life.

There are opponents to this bill. Republican Representative Jim Walsh has argued that if people want to have the right to vote, they need to be making payments on any financial obligations they might have to the justice system. What's your response to that?

I think people who make a mistake are punished in so many ways. They're held on bail. They're prosecuted. They're incarcerated. They're kept out of employment and housing opportunities, and the legal financial obligations as well.

I think when we over-punish people, we really create conditions where they commit more crimes. I will say that people still will have to pay back their legal financial obligations. If they do get a part-time or minimum wage job, their paychecks will be garnished to pay these legal financial obligations.

The voting right, however, has no public safety risks, and only public safety benefits. We want to reduce some barriers where we can. Restoring the voting rights should not be incumbent upon your ability to make a payment, because that's kind of punishing the poor as well.

Some people cannot ever pay back their LFOs (Legal Financial Obligations) because they are disabled. The prison population disproportionately affects people with disabilities, severe mental health conditions. Their ability to make payments shouldn't be their condition for them to vote.

Your bill is coming up at a time when we're seeing a nationwide push now in over 40 state legislatures to make it harder for some Americans to vote. How do you see your bill against that larger backdrop?

Throughout history, there have always been people who are pushing to restrict the right to vote, and people who are working to expand democracy. I am proud to be on the side of expanding democracy. I think this is really tied to racial inequality.

If you look at the history of voter suppression, and particularly disenfranchisement for felony convictions, it is very much rooted in Jim Crow-era laws. Fundamentally, I have always been about inclusivity and equity. This bill and expanding democracy is in line with those values.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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