“While other states are restricting their right to vote, I’m glad that in Washington here, we’re expanding our access to democracy,” Governor Inslee declared during the bill-signing event.
Prior to this legislation, people that were convicted of felonies in Washington did not have their voting rights restored immediately upon leaving incarceration. They could only regain them provisionally following the completion of all the conditions of their sentence. These post-incarceration sentences—like probation or parole—can last several years.
As such, this move by Washington State toward voting rights is an important one, and in passing this bill into law, the state joins about 17 others with the same policy.
Something uniquely compelling about House Bill 1078, though, is one of the legislators that sponsored it: Representative Tarra Simmons, the first known formerly incarcerated lawmaker in the United States. She says the law will not only help to encourage formerly incarcerated individuals to reintegrate. It will also bring racial equity, as those on parole in Washington State are disproportionately people of color.
“Regaining the right to vote, after having lost so many things, meant more to me than most people could imagine,” she said. “This might seem a small thing to some people, but it’s a giant step for civil rights and it’s one that will give others what it gave me: a belief that I mattered, that I was once again a member of society, and that my freedom was worth preserving at all costs.”
One individual that will reap the benefits of this law is Anthony Blankenship, a 37-year-old resident of Tacoma, Washington. Blankenship, still fulfilling the terms of his post-incarceration community supervision, will have his right to vote restored when the law goes into effect in 2022.
“It feels surreal to me, that so many people that have been silenced now, have their voices back,” he noted. “As a Black man, this last election cycle was that painful reminder that we haven’t moved that far from Jim Crow.”
Blankenship hits the nail on the head. In this country, poor people are systematically removed from their communities and locked away. They are disproportionately policed, charged, convicted, and sentenced. Mass incarceration points to why the restoration of voting rights for everyone currently or formerly incarcerated is so crucial.
The arguments for this are numerous. These days, those incarcerated are frequently the topic of policy considerations that will directly impact them, and yet they are barred from having a say in these discussions. Even further, they are counted in population tallies that are used to determine their state’s electoral votes and seats in Congress. That leaves over 2 million U.S. Americans—more than the population of Rhode Island—at the mercy of a government they have no say in.
Some states, like Massachusetts, have even increased voting disenfranchisement in recent years. Once one of the few states that preserved the right to vote for incarcerated people, this changed quickly when a political action committee was formed by a group incarcerated individuals in the state in 1997.
The political action committee’s intended purpose? To educate other incarcerated people about the voting records of elected officials, and to encourage them to exercise their right to vote.
The same day, the then-acting Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci announced that he intended to take away these rights through a constitutional amendment. This passed through a referendum in 2000 by a 2 to 1 margin.
Of course, House Bill 1078 is a crucial victory on the path to ending disenfranchisement in Washington State. 20,000 Washingtonians will have their rights restored on January 1, 2022, and that’s something to be celebrated.
But the fight is far from over. The voting rights of incarcerated people must be preserved, protected, and expanded. Millions more remain disenfranchised across the country and, as we have seen, legislative victories can be —and often are—undone.
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