by Nancy Talner and Julya Hampton
Are you registered to vote for the upcoming Presidential election? Even if you have a prior felony conviction, you may be eligible to register to vote in Washington. This article explains how ex-felons can get their voting rights restored.
Under the Washington Constitution, Art. VI, sec. 3, all persons convicted of "infamous crimes" (all felony convictions) lose the right to vote upon conviction. When an individual is convicted of a felony crime, the court clerk is required to notify the county election official in the county of the felon's last known address. When the election official receives the notice, the offender's voter registration is cancelled. County election officials notify the Secretary of State of all cancelled voter registrations on a weekly basis.
How can I get my right to vote back?
Persons convicted of a felony are eligible to restore their right to vote when they have completed all the conditions of their sentence. Although losing the right to vote is automatic, the process for restoring that right is not.
What you need to do depends on where and when you were convicted:
Ø If you were convicted in Washington after 1984, you must obtain a certificate of discharge from the court in the county in which you were convicted.
Ø If you were convicted in Washington prior to 1984, you can request the Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board to restore your right to vote.
Ø If you were convicted in federal court, you can request the Washington State Clemency and Pardons Board to restore your right to vote.
Ø If you were convicted in another state and your right to vote was not restored in that state, you can request the Washington State Clemency and Pardons Board to restore your right to vote.
What is a certificate of discharge?
A certificate of discharge is a document that the Department of Corrections (DOC) requests when an offender has completed all the terms of the sentence, including payment of any fines, restitution, or other financial obligations that are part of the sentence. Once a superior court judge signs the certificate, the right to vote is restored as a matter of law, along with the right to serve on a jury, the right to sign initiatives, and the right to run for office. The discharge certificate does not restore the right to possess firearms.
Under recent legislation, DOC no longer supervises an offender when the only unfulfilled part of the sentence is financial obligations. Instead, superior court clerks are responsible for collecting these financial obligations. In addition, during the last state legislative session, lawmakers created a new procedure for restoring voting rights to individuals who were unable to satisfy their financial obligations while under DOC supervision. Beginning in June 2004, these individuals can petition the superior court in which they were convicted to issue them a certificate of discharge. See RCW 9.94A.637. The petition form can be found on the Washington State Courts website at: http://www. courts .wa.gov/forms/?fa=forms.formdisp& filename=CR08_0600&category-list=43
In order to obtain a certificate of discharge under this petition procedure, the offender has to show the sentencing court that all obligations of the sentence have been completed. Completion of non-financial conditions can be proven either by DOC verification, or by offenders providing their own documentation showing completion of such things as community service hours and treatment programs. The court clerk's office is responsible for notifying the court that all legal financial obligations have been satisfied. Once the court has the required documentation, a certificate of discharge will be issued. It is important to obtain a certificate of discharge as soon as an individual becomes eligible because the time period for vacating and sealing a conviction begins to run on the date that the certificate of discharge is issued.
What if I was convicted in Washington and the DOC issued a "termination order"?
A termination order means the DOC ended its efforts to collect any remaining unpaid fines, restitution or other financial obligations imposed at sentencing. As long as these individuals still have outstanding financial obligations, they have not yet completed the terms of their sentence and are not entitled to restoration of their right to vote.
What if I was convicted of a non-violent felony?
After half of the community supervision period has been completed and all other sentence requirements (fines/fees/costs and restitution) have been satisfied, a person who was convicted of a non-violent felony can request the sentencing judge to issue a certificate of discharge.
Why does the ACLU care about restoring voting rights?
The ACLU opposes felony disenfranchisement. In those states that disenfranchise felons, the ACLU believes that once you have served your time, your right to vote should be restored. Yet in Washington, over 150,000 persons cannot vote because of a prior felony conviction. Many people are unable to get back their right to vote simply because they owe money for court fees, restitution, or other sentence-related financial obligations. Because poverty makes it difficult for many ex-felons to pay their financial obligations, a large percentage of ex-felons are permanently barred from voting. Nearly 25% of African-American men in Washington are ineligible to vote because of a prior felony conviction. Felony disenfranchisement in Washington has a significant racially disparate effect on African American males. This issue is being litigated in the case of Farrakhan v. Locke, 338 F.3d 1009 (9th Cir. 2003), rehearing denied, 359 F.3d 1116 (9th Cir. 2004). The Ninth Circuit ordered a new summary judgment hearing, but the State has asked the Supreme Court to grant cert. We expect to hear more in the fall of 2004.
The Washington ACLU continues to pursue legislation that would automatically restore an ex-felon's right to vote at the point when all non-financial obligations of the sentence have been completed. Bills were introduced in 2002, 2003 and in 2004. None of the bills succeeded in moving out of committee.
The Washington ACLU now hears on an almost daily basis from ex-felons who want to vote. Most of these individuals are unfamiliar with state procedures, or they have been unable to get from state agencies the documents required for restoration of their rights. We also hear from a growing number of people who were subject to a termination order, but who were later able to satisfy their financial obligations.
Contact the ACLU if you have served your time and you want to:
Ø register to vote but you don't know how;
Ø vote but cannot do so because your case was terminated by the DOC;
Ø vote but are having trouble using the petition for certificate of discharge process;
Ø vote and have served your prison sentence, but you still owe money for fines, restitution, or other financial obligations imposed at sentencing.
ATTN Voting Rights
705 Second Ave. Suite 300
Seattle, WA 98104
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