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Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Washington

Washington lawmakers are considering legislation to restore voting rights to more than 10,000 Washingtonians living in the community.

Last Updated: January 24, 2020
Published: April 20, 2018

Disenfranchisement in Washington

Washington’s law prohibits people with felony convictions from voting while they are in prison or on probation or parole. As a result, there are more than 10,000 Washingtonians living in the community who are unable to vote. Thousands more who were convicted of a felony in Washington state court and owe legal financial obligations (“LFOs”) also live under threat of having their voting rights revoked if they fail to make timely payments. And because of racial disparities in Washington’s criminal justice system, the state’s law has a disproportionate impact on communities of color.

Legislative Efforts

In January 2020, legislators introduced HB 2292/SB 6228, which would automatically restore voting rights to people on community supervision. On January 22, 2020, a public hearing before the Senate Committee on State Government, Tribal Relations & Elections was held on SB 6228 and the Brennan Center provided written testimony in support. SB 6228 passed out of committee on January 24, 2020. The Brennan Center is working with a coalition of Washington-based organizations to encourage the bill’s passage. 

In 2019, legislators introduced SB 5076/HB 1924 which would restore voting rights to people on community supervision (probation and parole), and SB 5207, which would require the Department of Corrections to provide each person released from prison with written notice of their voting rights and a voter registration form. The Brennan Center provided written testimony in support of SB 5076 and SB 5207. SB 5027 passed in both the House and the Senate, and was signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee on April 17, 2019.

In 2009, the Brennan Center worked with the ACLU of Washington in support of H.B 1517 to eliminate LFOs as a condition of restoration of civil rights. HB 1517 passed the House and Senate in April 2009 and Governor Christine Gregoire signed the bill on May 4, 2009. The Brennan Center, the American Probation and Parole Association and the National Black Police Association all wrote to the Governor in support of the legislation.

Litigation

The Brennan Center was involved in numerous efforts to change Washington's voting rights laws on the road to this policy.  The Brennan Center filed an amicus brief in Madison v. Washington, where plaintiffs represented by the ACLU of Washington challenged the state’s law that conditioned the restoration of voting rights on a person’s payment of all LFOs. The King County Superior Court of Washington struck down the provision which conditioned the right to vote on the payment of LFOs; however, the Washington Supreme Court ultimately upheld the law on appeal.

When the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund brought Farrakhan v. Gregoire, asserting that Washington’s felony disenfranchisement law denied the right to vote on account of race in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“VRA”), the Brennan Center filed four amicus briefs. On January 5, 2010, the Ninth Circuit held that the law violated Section 2 of the VRA. But upon en banc rehearing, the Ninth Circuit determined the law did not violate the VRA because there was no evidence of initial discrimination in the state’s criminal justice system.

Brennan Center Materials

Brennan Center Publications

  • Restoring the Right to Vote, Erika Wood (2009)
    • The Brennan Center’s policy proposal for restoring voting rights for citizens with past criminal convictions.
  • My First Vote (2009)
    • Testimonials of individuals who regained their voting rights after being disenfranchised because of past criminal convictions.
  • De Facto Disenfranchisement, Erika Wood & Rachel Bloom (2008)
    • A report on how complex laws, poorly informed officials, and misinformation lead to the de facto disenfranchisement of citizens with past criminal convictions who are eligible to vote.
  • Racism & Felony Disenfranchisement: An Intertwined History, Erin Kelley (2017)
    • A piece examining the historical roots of criminal disenfranchisement laws that today strip voting rights from millions of U.S. citizens.

For more information about the Brennan Center’s work on Restoring Voting Rights in Washington, please contact Stuart Baum, at stuart.baum@nyu.edu.