Prisoners would get to vote under bill backed by formerly incarcerated WA lawmaker

Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Kitsap, is the first formerly incarcerated legislator in Washington state. (Courtesy of House Democrats)

An estimated 4.6 million people in the United States cannot vote due to a felony conviction. Washington has already taken steps to change that, having restored voting rights to incarcerated people convicted of felonies immediately upon release in 2022.

But Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Kitsap, said that’s not enough. The next step, she believes, should be allowing all Washington prisoners to vote.

“If you are learning about candidates and learning about issues that are bigger than yourself, then you are on the path to rehabilitation,” said Simmons, the first formerly incarcerated state legislator, during a committee hearing on Tuesday.

House Bill 2030 would effectively allow anyone incarcerated in a state prison to vote or sit on a jury. It only bans prisoners from voting who are convicted of a crime punishable by death. In Washington, a 2018 court decision determined capital punishment was unconstitutional, and Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill last April that abolished the death penalty in state law.

There are around 13,000 people in Washington’s prisons, although not all of them are citizens. If Washington enacts HB 2030, it would join only Maine, Vermont and the District of Columbia in allowing prisoners to vote.

Advocates say voting should be an inalienable right, regardless of incarceration status, and that allowing prisoners to vote will help reduce recidivism. Studies show prisoners are less likely to reoffend if they feel invested in their communities. Preventing prisoners from voting also disproportionately affects Black and Indigenous communities in Washington, who have higher rates of incarceration.

Simmons also said the legislation will help lawmakers see prisoners as constituents. She’s been pushing for the policy since she became a lawmaker in 2020.

But Republicans are unconvinced Simmons’ proposal is a good idea. They’ve voiced concerns about violent criminals voting and acting as irresponsible jurors.

“I disagree with your premise of racism. When I heard this bill, read this bill, I thought of one person: Gary Ridgway,” said Rep. Sam Low, R-Lake Stevens, referencing a serial killer who murdered at least 49 teenage girls and women in Washington. “Would Gary Ridgway’s rights be restored?”

“Yes, they would,” Simmons replied.

‘Righting a historical wrong’

The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate and some of the most restrictive criminal voting disenfranchisement laws among modern democracies. It wasn’t until the end of the Civil War and the expansion of voting rights to Black men that felonies became a major obstacle to the ballot box, according to a Brennan Center for Justice report. 

“Lawmakers — especially in the South — implemented a slew of criminal laws designed to target Black citizens,” writes Brennan Center researcher Erin Kelley. “And nearly simultaneously, many states enacted broad disenfranchisement laws that revoked voting rights from anyone convicted of any felony.”

Charles Longshore, an incarcerated Skokomish tribal member, told lawmakers the bill does more than give incarcerated people the right to vote: “It’s righting a historical wrong,” he said. Indigenous people, he pointed out, are incarcerated at the highest rate of any race or ethnicity in Washington.

“Regardless of incarceration, I’m a member of our state’s original people. That should count for something. I shouldn’t be here in 2024 fighting for an Indian to have the right to vote,” he said.

“I’m at a point in my life where I’m rehabilitated, but I feel disenfranchised,” Longshore added. “I don’t feel as equally important to those in our community. Yet I am a community member. I’m working hard to be part of my community.”

Raymond Williams, a white member of the Black Prisoners Caucus, said he lost his right to vote before he turned 18 due to Washington’s three strikes law, which sentences anyone convicted of three serious felonies to life without parole. The list of eligible felonies included unarmed robberies until 2021. 

“Serving life without the possibility of parole has been described as ‘civil death.’ I’ve never even been given the opportunity for civil birth,” Williams said.

“I face living my entire existence in a country that’s lecturing the world about democracy, while having never participated in it,” he added.

Republicans, Secretary of State skeptical

Simmons said there’s no public safety risk to allowing prisoners to vote.

“They’re not going to use their ballot to commit a crime,” Simmons said. “They’re not going to use their ballot to hold somebody up.”

But Republicans and a representative of the secretary of state’s office questioned whether restoring voting rights to all prisoners would be responsible. Brian Hatfield, who testified on behalf of Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, said the office’s interpretation of the legislation suggests that people serving felony sentences could run for office.

Hatfield raised a number of logistical concerns and said Hobbs has “strong objections” to giving voting rights to those “who have not yet paid their debt to society.”

“People gaining voting rights under this bill would include those serving life sentences. Those are people who a court has found can never earn the right to live without supervision,” Hatfield said.

Rep. Greg Cheney, R-Battle Ground, said he was “deeply troubled” by the idea of prisoners sitting on juries. (Lawyers can request a judge to dismiss a potential juror if they believe a juror has specific experiences that might cause them to be biased or unfair.)

Cheney also suggested it would be “hurting democracy” to allow Longshore, who was convicted of second-degree murder, to vote. He asked one advocate, Abigail Leong of WA Voting Justice Coalition, if she believes Longshore should be allowed to sit on a jury of a person accused of murder.

“Yes, I think our democracy is strongest when every citizen has their voice heard,” Leong replied. Leong said people bring up extreme crimes to villainize prisoners or take away voting rights for large groups of people.

“Your humanity is not defined by the worst decision you’ve ever made in your life,” she said.

Low repeatedly brought up Gary Ridgway, also known as the Green River Killer, at one point asking Cindy Madigan of the League of Women Voters of Washington if it was the position of the organization that Ridgway should have his voting rights restored.

“Gary Ridgway took the voting rights of 49 to 70 women,” Low said.

Madigan told him that she agreed with previous testimony that extreme cases like Ridgway’s are “not necessarily relevant to the rights of the majority of citizens who may not have done that level of crime.”

Williams said it’s easy to understand concerns about people like Ridgway voting. But he asked lawmakers to consider “all the other people who are cast into that same category.”

“We’re not all Gary Ridgway,” Williams said.

by Grace Deng, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

  1. Violent criminals are included in this bill. Where are our priorities? Hint: not below.

    WA OSPI 23’, only 39.1% of students met the math standard, 42.9% science, 50% ELA. Public schools are losing students to private schools. Seattle broke a record homicide rate, and WA has ranked no.2 in nation for property crime for nearly a decade. It’s time for change.

    1. Right on! We need to reset our priorities! Do we really want those who break our criminal laws to be the ones involved in the process of law? Our focus should be on our youth, and giving them the tools and education to help them become law-abiding citizens.

  2. Another nutty idea by a far left Democrat legislator. Are they that desperate for votes they now want to troll the prisons? Exactly how would murders serve on juries? Who would be willing to serve with them? Let them serve their sentence then apply for restoration of rights as allowed under existing laws.

  3. People incarcerated for felonies did not, arbitrarily decide one day to commit a crime that resulted in their arrest. There was a series of events and freely made decisions that brought them to this point. In that process they victimized an unknown number of people who either lost their lives leaving loved ones to mourn their demise, or others living with the trauma inflicted on them by criminals. If, by chance some criminals are remorseful then their primary impulse would be to realize there isn’t enough regret in the world to rectify their behavior. The fact that some are now demanding their rights to freely live as citizens demonstrate that concern with their needs, wants and desires are still paramount in their lives. I think the recidivism rate indicates this, although some people want to place responsibility with society, or anyone except the person responsible for their own decisions. A resounding no to the “lawmakers?” In this state.

  4. The U.S. is one of only four countries where felons are banned from voting even after release. Not every state in the U.S. bans felons from voting and there are states that allow felons to vote with specific restrictions such as not being allowed to vote while in prison. Some countries also have some restrictions such as Belgium which bans felons from voting after release if a prison sentence was over seven years. In Iceland the ban from ever voting is applied to felons having served at least four years in prison.
    More info (current up to 2012) is available here:

    I think it serves our community to look at these ideas thoughtfully and it’s worth educating ourselves on the subject rather than give in to knee jerk reactions. My knee jerk reaction was “oh no” but I decided to do some research. There is always room for improvement and clearly there are varying degrees of amending the laws so that they make sense and help our communities become stronger. A stronger community is never a bad thing.

    1. It is wrong to use the pejorative and ad hominin attack “knee jerk” here. This is a state by state issue and not a Federal one per se. I have no objection to felons voting provided that they serve their sentences and pay in full any and all restitution due. Ridgeway should be dead but will doubtless spend the rest of his life in prison.

  5. Here’s another really poor idea from a Washington State Legislator. Why would anyone believe that a person that breaks the law has good decision-making skills. People go to jail based on personal conduct.. These criminals, who have already proven they are incapable of making lawful decisions, would have a vote that impact our daily lives. It is irrational, and defies logic, for criminals to have a voice on who runs our government, who is guilty under a court of law, and who could possibly run for public office.

  6. Almost all inmates in the US are Democrats. This makes sense since Democrats typically don’t want laws enforced or tough sentences for criminals. Now they would like them to vote? Not a surprise.

    1. “Democrats typically don’t want laws enforced or tough sentences”

      Interesting. Some far-left idiot politicians may think this (no loonier than far-right pols!) But almost all my friends are Democrats, and none of them think this. Where ever did you get your information?

      For the record, I believe this is a terrible idea – commit a felony, you lose your vote until you have served your full sentence and parole.

    2. How on earth do you know Matt that “almost all inmates in the US are Democrats”? Facts to prove your sweeping statements? Not helpful to advancing the conversation IMO.

      1. I read studies. It appears felons vote Democrat 70% of the time. The Democrat party is smart they aren’t looking to expand voting rights for people who aren’t likely voters. Do a little research.

        1. I too did some research Matt. Your statement appears to be a claim pushed by Tedd Cruz in a sampling of prisoners after release in 3 states, hardly an accurate claim such as you made of 70%. And in fact, one source calla Cruz’ claim mostly false. I’m not in favor at all of incarcerated ppl serving on juries nor anyone convicted of crimes such as murder being allowed to vote. And I’m not sure how I feel abt prisoners in general voting. I suppose it can’t be fine-tuned to levels of crimes. I don’t see it as likely to happen but I do advocate for reasonable discussions on the topic, not partisan pushing of exaggerated claims.

  7. So how would this work? Would those jailed at Monroe Prison vote as residences of the City of Monroe? Or would they vote at their last place of resident? Seems like this wouldn’t be fair! Let the current rules remain, if a felon wants rights restored, they can apply and their voting rights should be granted.

  8. I can think of a few problems with this proposal. An incarcerated felon gets called to jury duty~ that would require him to be released and transported to the courtroom, presumably with an armed guard to assure his return to prison. Clearly additional costs and inconvenience to prison authorities, and more so in the (unlikely) event the convict got seated on a trial lasting multiple days.

    Prospective jurors are subjected to voir dire to determine their qualifications to be jurors on a given case. It would be legal malpractice for a prosecutor to allow an imprisoned felon to sit on a jury in a criminal case.

    I can think of further problems, but can’t address them adequately within Teresa’s comment word limit. Maybe it would be better to reserve such a program for convicts within 6 months of their release, and then only with a record of “good behavior” while incarcerated.

  9. It would seem to me that the last thing a convicted felon in jail would NEED to be spending time on is voting. They should probably be spending their time on getting some education, or more education, or some job training or new job skills. This is the kind of silly and useless legislation, coming from the Democratic Party side, that has turned me into an independent.

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