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WA Supreme Court: Pay First...Vote Later

July 30, 2007

Former felons have to pay all of their fines before they are allowed to vote again. The controversial state law has just been upheld as legal by the Washington Supreme Court. However, critics say the law undermines democracy, and even violates ex-offenders' rights, because it denies them right to vote based on wealth -- their ability to pay the fines. Lea Zengage with the group Justice Works! argues the court's decision also makes it harder for former offenders to reintegrate into their communities.

"Citizens are responsible to vote, to follow the law, to pay their taxes -- and when you tell them, 'You're not allowed to participate as a responsible citizen,' it's just not moving them in the right direction."

Zengage thinks the law hearkens back to the so-called "Jim Crow" laws that kept black citizens from voting.

"It’s a modern day poll tax. Certain people are excluded from voting based on things that they have no control over."

Washington is one of eight states that prohibit ex-offenders from voting until they make full restitution. Twelve other states, including Oregon, automatically restore the right to vote when a citizen is released from prison.

Dondrea Warner/Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA