Persons detained in county jails have the right to register and vote while there. But suffrage advocates have encountered two major obstacles to increasing voting from prison: the logistical problems of voting from prison in a mail-in voting state and a lack of awareness of voting rights.
“Now we’re trying to figure out a better way to improve access and remove these barriers to voting for people in prison,” said Jaime Hawk, director of legal strategy at the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington.
The majority of inmates are in remand state or awaiting trial, which means they are not fully contained by the state Department of Corrections. Inmates are eligible to vote as long as they meet the other eligibility criteria — they are residents of Washington state, US citizens, and at least 18 years old. For those convicted of a felony, their right to vote is restricted only while they are physically serving time in a state or federal prison.
One of the most important factors in facilitating prison voting is hiring dedicated staff to do outreach in prisons. This means using professional poll workers rather than relying on prison workers, who are usually busy with other duties.
Counties could also use grant money to buy computers and printers and to set up polling places in prisons, where election officials could register voters and print replacement ballots on the spot.
Governor’s budget money comes into play following the passage in the last legislative session of House Bill 1078, which automatically restored the franchise to those convicted of a felony “who are not in full custody under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections”. The law came into force on January 1.
Although inmates had the right to vote before HB 1078 was passed, there was still much confusion among inmates, prison workers, and suffrage advocates regarding voter eligibility.
“When we were talking to public defenders, prison workers, listeners, they were like, ‘It’s really hard for us to know if someone is eligible to vote,'” Hawk said.
In the past, the legislature limited the right to vote to those in community custody of the Department of Corrections or who had accrued sufficient unpaid legal financial obligations, which no longer makes them ineligible to vote. According to Hawk, it is difficult for auditors and prison staff to tell which inmates are in the Department of Corrections’ community custody, complicating widespread voter access. HB 1078 clarified and simplified voting rights, removing these contingencies.
Despite the new law, misconceptions and confusion among inmates and formerly incarcerated people are still common.
“There’s a de facto disenfranchisement because there are so many people in Washington state who still think they don’t have the right to vote,” Hawk said.
Suffrage advocates are strategizing how they think county jails should use grant money to increase awareness and convenience for county jail inmates.
In the grand scheme of spending more than $3 billion on new programs and program expansions that Inslee is proposing in its 2022 supplemental budget, half a million for prison voting isn’t very big. However, Republican lawmakers are skeptical about the relative importance of improving access to voting in prison. According to state Rep. Jenny Graham, R-Spokane, her constituents aren’t reaching out to her to expand voting access in prison.
“I have constituents asking me to make their communities safe again, asking me why violent crime is at its highest level in 25 years,” Graham said. “These are the issues that concern my constituents.”
Graham expects the state budget to look very different once the governor’s proposal passes the House and Senate. For her, the governor’s budget indicates that Inslee’s priorities are incorrect when it comes to serving Washingtonians.
“The governor is prioritizing people who have committed crimes,” Graham said. “I think we should prioritize people who haven’t committed crimes. He wants to spend that money on criminals. It’s sad, because there are people in our community who think those 628 $000 would greatly help survivors of crime, unfortunately it feels like they are treated like second class citizens in Washington State.
Despite a lack of bipartisan support, suffrage advocates remain hopeful that this budget proposal will remain intact as it passes through the Legislative Assembly.
“Democracy is better when everyone is able to make their voice heard,” Hodson said in the King County election.