Breaking Legal News - POSTED: 2009/03/23 15:48
For tens of thousands of convicted felons in Washington state, only one thing stands between them and the ballot box: debt.
Under current law, felons can't vote until they have served their sentences, including the completion of any parole or probation, and paid all restitution and other court fees.
A measure to remove that payment requirement — opponents say it's akin to a modern-day "poll tax" — has passed the House and awaits action in the Senate. If it becomes law, felons could simply re-register to vote once they're no longer in state custody, including any parole or probation.
"The basic unfairness is that our system is currently based on someone paying off their legal obligations," said Rep. Jeannie Darneille, a Tacoma Democrat who sponsored the measure. "If you have money, you can get your rights restored, and if you don't have money, you won't."
Washington's neighbor, Oregon, automatically restores voting rights to felons once they're released from prison. Nearly 40 other states and the District of Columbia also have less onerous restrictions on restoring voting rights to felons.
But others argue Washington state is obligated to make sure felons complete all of their sentence, including all monetary obligations.
"Until they pay their fines and restitution, to me, they haven't carried out their entire sentence," said Rep. Ed Orcutt, a Kalama Republican who opposes the bill. "So their voting rights shouldn't be restored."
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a Seattle Democrat who sponsored a similar measure in the Senate, said felons will still need to pay off their debts, but won't have to wait to vote while they're doing so.
"It's more an issue of fairness," she said. "I don't think the right to vote should be based on one's income."