By Sydney Brown
WNPA Olympia News Service
Formerly incarcerated people will immediately regain the right to vote after Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law this automatic right, marking passage for one of the first criminal justice reform bills this session.
“The right to vote we know is a key component to a successful reentry into society following incarceration,” Inslee said as he signed House Bill 1078 April 7.
“This might seem a small thing to some people, but it’s a giant step for civil rights,” Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, said in a statement as the bill’s primary sponsor. Simmons advocated for the bill as a formerly incarcerated person herself.
Washington joins 19 other states in immediate restoration of voting rights after completing a prison sentence, according to 2020 data from The Sentencing Project.
This law will restore the right for more than 45,000 disenfranchised people in the state, according to data on Washington State from The Sentencing Project. Nationally, Maine and Vermont remain the only two states to allow those still in prison to vote and have no voting restrictions based on felony convictions. Eleven states still deny the vote to anyone who was in the prison system, even after they finish confinement and parole.
“While there were states restricting the right to vote, I’m glad that in Washington, here we’re expanding our access to democracy,” Inslee said.
The bill did not have much bipartisan support, with some Republican lawmakers saying people convicted of felonies should finish their entire sentence before the right to vote is restored.
“It should be restored, absolutely. But it should be restored after 100% of their fine or debt to their society is paid,” Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, told the Senate during its floor vote March 24.
Also in criminal justice reform, Inslee signed a bill to change the arbitrator selection process when a law enforcement officer faces disciplinary action. SB 5055 creates a rotating pool of qualified and independent arbitrators from which the Public Relations Employment Commission can choose. The law also requires agencies to collect data on disciplinary action hearings.
“This bill improves the approach we use when a law enforcement officer faces a disciplinary action,” Inslee said.
A study on police arbitration found that 46% of the time, the arbitrators would force agencies to rehire officers even if a disciplinary hearing found they had engaged in misconduct on the job.
Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-West Seattle, the bill’s primary sponsor, said in a statement the bill took another step toward more transparent law enforcement.
“It may not be a silver bullet to fixing our criminal justice and policing systems, but this is a massive step toward comprehensive reform and a fairer process,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen’s bill garnered some support from Republicans as it passed the House in a 60-38 vote March 24. Some who opposed it said certain parts of the bill would actually increase bias in the arbitrator process.
“The intent of the bill is to avoid those, so I would have preferred to see more of an open slate for the arbitrator pool that we develop,” Rep. Larry Hoff, R-Vancouver, said during the debate.