Educating the community about restoring felon voting rights

It’s important for voters to make their voice heard. Here in Washington State we take extra steps to ensure that all people who can vote, know they have the right to do so. This extends to felon voting rights, and helping each person understand their right to vote and need to register.

Recently, a woman in Texas made headlines for voting in a general election while still on probation. She had broken a state law that does not allow convicted felons to vote until their entire sentence has been served. Unaware of these voting restrictions under Texas law, she was sentenced to five years.

This tragic story is a reminder of the importance of voter education. In Washington State, a voter’s right is automatically restored when they are no longer under the authority of the Department of Corrections (DOC). This also means someone convicted of a felony in another state or federal court has the right to vote restored to them when they are no longer incarcerated for that felony. These individuals simply need to re-register to vote, which can be done online, by mail or in person. If this woman had been here in Washington, she would have been informed that her right to vote has been reinstated upon release from the DOC, and encouraged to re-register.

To remove barriers like this for voters, and provide education and outreach to make voting an accessible option for everyone, we have created the Voter Education Fund. This partnership with The Seattle Foundation is helping to fund programs that teach the community about felon voting rights, and educate people about how to make their voice heard.

“It’s important to educate the public about this law because a lot of different states don’t do this,” said Jacob Lodge, Assistant Operations Manager with Elections. “There’s misconceptions about this and it’s important to tell people so they know their rights.”

In Washington State, the right to vote is restored automatically to anyone convicted of a felony in a state court the moment they are no longer under the authority of the Department of Corrections (DOC). If someone was convicted in another state or in federal court, the right to vote is restored automatically as long as they are not incarcerated for the felony. Those with questions about their voting status are welcome to call the DOC at (800) 430-9674.

It’s also commonly misunderstood that people do not lose the right to vote for a misdemeanor conviction or a conviction in juvenile court. These do not bar someone from having the right to vote. People are also sometimes confused and believe they need a certificate of discharge to have their voting rights restored. This is not true. As long as someone is not disqualified from voting due to a court order, and is not under the supervision of the DOC for a Washington felony conviction, he or she has the right to vote and must re-register to do so. This can be done online, by mail or in person.

According to an October 2016 study by The Sentencing Project, an organization working for reforms within the criminal justice system, across the United States, approximately 6.1 million Americans cannot vote because of a felony conviction. Within this population, 77 percent are community members under probation, parole or having completed their sentence, not actually in detention.

With felony voting rights in the news as of late, it’s important to remind people that since 2009 Washington State has provided the restoration of voting rights to felons and that King County is leading the way in removing barriers for voters by providing education that helps each person make their voice heard.

To learn more about who can vote, visit the King County Elections website or the Washington State Secretary of State website. For answers to frequently asked questions about voting restoration in Washington, visit the ACLU website.