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WA Lawmakers Asked to End “Modern-Day Poll Tax”

February 12, 2009

Olympia, WA – The State Legislature is being asked in hearings this week to change a law that restricts the voting rights of tens of thousands of Washingtonians. More than 167,000 people in Washington don’t vote because prior criminal convictions prevent them from voting until they pay off any fines and court costs. Even then, they must petition a court to have their rights restored. Critics say it’s an unnecessarily confusing system that unfairly ties voting rights to a person’s financial means.

Jennifer Shaw, legislative director for the ACLU, says Washington’s current system is like a modern-day poll tax, which favors those with money who can afford to pay restitution promptly. She calls the state's law one of the most restrictive in the nation for regaining lost voting rights.

"Even if you’ve served your full sentence and paid off all your legal financial obligations, you still have to go back to the sentencing court to get a Certificate of Discharge. That process is so convoluted that some people just don’t even try."

Restoring voting rights allows people to reintegrate more quickly, adds Shaw, and research shows when they do, they are 50-percent less likely to re-offend.

"That is a savings that is going to be realized across the whole system, because you have fewer people committing crimes, fewer people going back into the Department of Corrections, fewer victims – and just, more stable communities."

13 states, including Oregon, use a simpler system, allowing former inmates to vote as soon as they’re released from prison, rather than tying the privilege to their fees and fines. Opponents see taking away voting rights as a necessary part of punishment for serious crimes. Religious and civil rights groups, the League of Women Voters of Washington, and even the secretary of state are pushing for the change, saying it would make Washington’s voting laws more fair and easier to administer.

The bills are HB 1517 and SB 5534. The House hearing is today at 8:00 a.m. in the House Government and Tribal Affairs Committee.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA