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Activists work to ensure access to registration and ballots.

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This is an example of one of the informational flyers the League of Women’s Voters provided to people incarcerated at the Whatcom County Jail. Photo courtesy of the League of Women Voters Bellingham.

By Henry Stewart-Wood

The majority of people in jail across Washington state are eligible to vote, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Activists with the ACLU and the League of Women Voters are working to ensure that they do. 

In Washington state, people in jail may legally vote unless they’re serving sentences for felony convictions, according to the Secretary of State's website. After people convicted of a felony complete their sentences and any community supervision or parole/probation, their right to vote is restored.

Getting ballots into the jails requires coordinated effort, said Whatcom County auditor Diana Bradrick.

“We work with the sheriff liaison to make sure that anybody that’s in the jail has equal rights to get registered and to get their ballot,” Bradrick said. 

The Auditor’s Office provides voter pamphlets, registration and ballots to the sheriff’s liaison, who takes those materials to people in jail, Bradrick said. Once the ballots have been cast, the liaison returns them to the Auditor’s Office to be counted. 

Neither the Sheriff’s Office nor the Auditor’s Office tracks the number of eligible voters in jail or how many have actually voted, Bradrick said. This makes it challenging to evaluate how many eligible voters in jail actually vote. 

“They're not profiled. We don't keep track that they turned their ballot in or that they registered.  We treat them like any other voter,” Bradrick said. 

However, statistics on Whatcom County Jail admissions show the majority of people booked into jail are not there for felony charges. Additionally, 59% of people in the Whatcom County Jail are awaiting trial. People in both of those categories are eligible to vote. 

This year the League of Women Voters created informational pamphlets and posters about voting, which are displayed throughout the jail, said Lt. Caleb Erickson of the Whatcom County Sheriff's Department.

The handouts inform incarcerated people that they can still vote even if they’ve been charged or convicted with a misdemeanor, charged with a felony or previously convicted with a felony but did their time, Bernstein said. 

The ACLU has also been working on the issue, said Jaime Hawk, legal strategy director at the Washington ACLU.

“The vast majority of people incarcerated in jail are eligible to vote,” Hawk said. “But due to felony disenfranchisement laws and a lot of confusion and misinformation about who is eligible to vote, there’s widespread de-facto disenfranchisement.”

Most of the confusion around voting comes from misunderstanding state law, Hawk said. 

Unlike in other states, a prior felony does not make people in Washington ineligible to vote. People convicted of felonies don’t have to pay off fines or debt before they can re-register, according to Washington law.

The ACLU has worked with jail administrators and public defenders to ensure people incarcerated in jails have the resources they need to vote in this election, Hawk said. 

Beyond ensuring eligible voters are able to vote while in jail, Hawk said the ACLU worked on Washington Senate Bill 6228, which would restore the right to vote for people with felony convictions upon release from jail or prison, rather than after completing parole or probation.

 Washington ACLU’s goal is to eliminate felony disenfranchisement completely, Hawk said.

“If we look at the history of felony disenfranchisement in this country, there are very clear roots in Jim Crow-era laws and systemic and institutional racism,” Hawk said. “There’s no question that felony disenfranchisement laws were passed as a way to oppress and limit the Black vote.”

In Washington, 0.5% to 1.9% of the population are disenfranchised, meaning they cannot legally vote. Among the Black population, that rate is higher ––  2% to 4.9% –– according to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group focused on incarceration.

Criminal justice and civil rights activists at the ACLU and the League of Women Voters say every eligible voter should have the resources and access they need to participate in democracy. 

“Democracy is strongest when we all participate, when we all have a voice, when the playing field is even,” Bernstein said. “And I have a commitment to that, and the League of Women Voters is absolutely committed to that as well.”


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