“We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” -Thomas Jefferson
Today is Election Day, a sacred time for American citizens. The right of self-determination in governance is central to our way of life. It is the chance for the people to select those representatives to form a government that provides for the security of all and ensures the opportunity of the people to fulfill their ambitions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But one of the consequences of a felony conviction in a Washington court is the loss of the right to vote. A loss of the ability to have your say in the future of our state and country. What can you do about such a severe and continuing punishment?
There are many felony crimes on the books in Washington. Some are incredibly serious (murder, rape), while others are much less so (possessing a tenth of a gram of heroin). But the law doesn’t discriminate – if you are convicted of any felony, no matter how serious, you will lose your right to vote. Those voting rights could be gone for life, potentially, unless you understand how to get them back.
Now, if you are facing a felony charge, you might generally be concerned about the loss of your voting rights. However, in that situation, it’s far more likely that you are more immediately worried about whether you will be convicted, and whether you will go to prison and for how long. Or you might be facing a loss of your job or career as a result of the felony. There are thousands of dollars in fines, costs, restitution that felonies can carry with them, so they can be a major strain on the pocketbook. You’ll lose your right to possess a firearm as well upon a felony conviction, which is very important to many people. It’s not always easy to reacquire the right to bear arms.
Because of all these consequences, plus the anxiety and stress of being under a felony charge, it is our experience that oftentimes people don’t pay much attention to the loss of their voting rights. Many times they don’t even consider it until years later, when an election is coming up that they care about, and want to vote in (only to find that they are still barred, even many years later).
The good news is that Washington favors the restoration of voting rights to felons generally. RCW 29A.08.520
mandates that as long as a person is not under the supervision of the Department of Corrections (DOC) for their felony conviction, their right to vote is “provisionally” restored. That means that the restoration is temporary, or “for the time being.” If the person convicted of the felony hasn’t paid their fines or restitution, or is in jail or prison, or is on probation, then the provisional restoration of their voting rights can be revoked.
How can one permanently restore their right to vote? The simplest answer is to obtain a “certificate of discharge” from the court where that person was sentenced. RCW 9.94A.637
outlines the procedure for getting this document. The law says the clerk of the court is supposed to receive notice from the DOC that the person convicted of the crime has completed all the terms of their sentence. Then, in theory, the clerk of the court will send out the certificate to the person, and that document has the effect of restoring all civil rights, including the right to vote.
Unfortunately, the clerk of the court almost never does what they are supposed to do. We don’t know why except it seems likely that it is simply burdensome for the court to track down all the people convicted and notify them. People move and change addresses, change names, die, and so on. The courts can’t keep up with it.
This is where a good lawyer comes in. A lawyer who practices regularly in post-conviction relief and restoration of voting rights (like we do at the Conom Law Firm) will be able to quickly determine whether a person is eligible to restore their voting rights. If they are, we can work quickly to secure a certificate of discharge, which will have the effect of restoring the client’s voting rights.
Restoring voting rights goes hand in hand with other options for clients convicted of felonies, which include restoration of firearm rights, vacation of the record of conviction or deletion of non-conviction data, and sealing of the public record. These important “housekeeping” legal functions can limit the damaging effect a felony conviction can have on a person’s life years later.
We have restored voting rights for persons all over Western Washington. The cost of such a service is low and it can be accomplished, in normal cases, within one to three months. Many times the client will not even need to appear in court for a hearing. Every client is unique though, so if you believe that you might want to clean up a problem from your past, give us a call and let us see what can be done to help you.
And remember to vote in every election – it’s your right as an American!
P.S. On April 7, 2021, Governor Jay Inslee signed into law H.B. 1078, which has the effect of restoring voting rights for convicted felons immediately upon release from jail or prison. The law amends RCW 29A.08.520 to “automatically” (rather than “provisionally”) restoring the right to vote. A person in such a situation will, by the terms of the law, have to re-register to vote prior to voting. Another new addition to the law is the requirement that the secretary of state, on at least a monthly basis (rather than the previous twice a year requirement), compare a list of registered voters to the list of persons not eligible to vote, and notifying those people about how their voting rights can be restored. The new law will take effect January 1, 2022. Great news for those convicted of felonies, their families and friends, and all who seek expanded voting access as a measure of a healthy democracy.