Abraham Lincoln was born 200 years ago last Friday. Lincoln began his Presidency intent, as were most white citizens, on the preservation of the union rather than the defeat of slavery. But the war itself, in a prolonged agonizing effort, delivered the death knell to slavery in our country. It forced the President to recruit and arm 200,000 black men, most of whom were born into slavery, for service to the union. Blacks made up ten percent of the union army. This arming of black folk made it impossible to accept slavery after the war. You give a former slave a uniform and a rifle, and he will never turn back.... And so, in 1865, Lincoln led us to a new world.
But democracy is a goal, never perfected. It is not something you buy. In our state, we still prevent hundreds of thousands of citizens from voting. That's because if you commit a felony, and serve your time and meet your probation and parole terms, you still have no right to vote. You are turned out to society, with no job, few resources, and the stigma of your imprisonment. And then, when you try to participate in our democracy, the door is slammed in your face.
In my campaign for the state legislature last year I met several people who couldn't vote because of their status as ex-felons. They had pretty much given up on society, just living on the edge and bitter with their exclusion. What a recipe for recidivism!
Why can't these people vote? Because they haven't fully paid off their legal financial obligations -- that is, fines -- which kick in at 12 percent interest the minute they are convicted. The required payment just for the victims' compensation fund is $500. After five years at 12 percent interest, that adds up to $900. And that doesn't include court mandated attorney fees, defense costs, victim restitution fees, and collection fees charged by counties. So when a citizen who has done his time tries to pay down his fine, it can get sticky. If you owe $900, and pay $15 a month, the accrued interest of $108 and collection fees of $100 leave you with a higher outstanding amount after a year of payments! And without paying this off, you can't vote. That's how 120,000 citizens are legally barred from voting.
This penalty falls hardest on low income people. If you are from a wealthy family you will pay off the fine once you are out of jail. But if you have no resources to fall back on, no job, and few prospects, paying off a fine that keeps growing is further and further from reach. The obstacle of these financial obligations puts us in the same league as Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi for denying people the right to vote. Our law excludes almost one-quarter of African-American males in our state from the vote. It is a silent poll tax, contrary to our democracy.
The odd thing is that if you committed a felony in Oregon or Alaska, and did your time there, you would get your voting rights back when you got out. And then if you moved to Washington, you would still keep your right to vote. But if you committed a felony 20 years ago in our state and had done your time, but hadn't paid all your fines, you still wouldn't get to vote.
Back in 2006 the King County Superior Court struck down the Washington law that denies the right to vote to thousands of ex-felons solely because they owe court-imposed fines. But in 2007, our state supreme court reversed this decision. In her concurrence, State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Madsen wrote that the "Legislature can change the requirements for reinstating a felon's right to vote if it concludes that requiring felons to pay all financial obligations before regaining the right to vote is too harsh a condition to place on such a precious attribute of citizenship...:"
Thanks to state senators Jeanne Kohl-Wells, Adam Kline, and Joe McDermott, all of Seattle, Darlene Fairley from Lake Forest Park, Debbie Regala from Tacoma, Jim Hargrove from Hoquiam, Karen Fraser from Olympia, and Claudia Kauffman from Kent, we can move voting rights from the 19th century to the 21st century. Their bill would make sure that, after serving prison time, probation, and parole, a citizen would have his right to vote restored. He would still owe the community service fines, and he could vote. (Sort of like many of us, who are behind in credit payments, tax payments, and mortgage payments in the throes of this recession.)
Now it is time for the full Legislature to step up to its obligation to enable all citizens to vote. We should not be picking and choosing who gets to vote on the basis of wealth. It is a precious attribute for all of us.