Editorials

Money shouldn’t decide felon’s right to vote

The right to vote shouldn’t be determined by how much money is in someone’s bank account.

Yet for tens of thousands of people in Washington, lack of money is exactly what keeps them from casting a ballot.

They are the convicted felons who have served their time in prison and have returned to society. As Washington’s law stands now, they can’t vote until they have paid all their restitution and other court fees.

For many, that means they’ll never vote again.

But the law might change. A measure has been approved in the House that would break the financial condition that keeps so many former prisoners from voting. The bill now is making its way through the Senate.

If approved, the right to vote no longer would be tied to a person’s income.

That would be an improvement in more ways than one.

Not only would it make the system more fair, but it also would simplify it. Secretary of State Sam Reed, who is in charge of elections for the state, has said determining which convicted felons are legal voters and which are not has been a difficult task.

It’s easy to track people when they are released from prison; it’s not so easy to find out if they have paid all their debts. Reed, a Republican, supports the bill, saying, “When people have served their time and are out of prison, we want them to get involved in their community and get connected.”

Opponents of the measure say criminals should completely pay for their crimes — including debts — before they are allowed the same rights as everyone else.

In 2007, the state Supreme Court agreed with that idea and upheld the current law after it was challenged by three felons who wanted their voting rights restored. One of them was disabled and living on Social Security. He made monthly payments toward his restitution, but in the meantime couldn’t vote because the debt was not paid in full.

Chief Justice Gerry Alexander wrote the dissenting opinion, saying, “As a society, we should encourage, rather than discourage, felons to rehabilitate themselves. As members of this society, we all benefit when those who have failed in the past to fully live up to their responsibilities as a citizen become full-fledged citizens who again can exercise the cherished right to vote.”

Although the majority of the court agreed current law did not violate the state or federal constitutions, it also said it should be up to the Legislature to determine the best policy for “re-enfranchising Washington’s felons.”

So now the Legislature is making that decision.

Most states around the country are less restrictive than Washington on this matter. Oregon, for example, allows convicted felons the right to vote as soon as they are released from prison. About 40 other states and the District of Columbia have rules more lenient than Washington’s.

Current law penalizes the poor and creates a voter registration headache. It’s time it was changed.

Voting rights shouldn’t be tied to a person’s income, no matter who that person is.

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