I’ve spent an awful lot of time criticizing the Legislature these past few weeks, and I’ve no apologies. I put a lot of effort into helping to elect Democrats, and thus I have a special obligation to keep their feet to the fire once they’re in office. But as frustrating and disappointing as the budget battle has been, there have been quite a few positive things to come out of this session, not the least of which is HB 1517, which finally reforms our states convoluted system for restoring voting rights to felons who have served their time.
For decades, Washington has been home to some of the nation’s most restrictive felon voting laws, which as of today have effectively disenfranchised over 167,000 otherwise eligible citizens. As no less an authority than the American Correctional Association has long argued, felon disenfranchisement is “contradictory to the goals of a democracy, the rehabilitation of felons and their successful reentry to the community.”
Under HB 1517, felons may now register to vote once they have served their sentence and completed state supervised parole or probation. It wasn’t an easy vote for many Democrats, who are often made the victim of Republican efforts to label them as soft on crime, but it was the right thing to do. And ironically, while our restrictive felon voting laws have long had a disproportionate impact on minority communities, Washington’s felon population is still overwhelmingly white, male and working class… the state GOP’s core demographic.
Amongst Rossiphiles, the felon voter is still a potent bogeyman. But if there is anything positive to have come out of the GOP’s losing arguments in the 2004 gubernatorial election contest, it was the increased awareness of our undemocratic and unworkable felon disenfranchisement laws, and this new bill that reforms them.