Election officials cleaning voter rolls; felons a 'work in progress'

Washington is making dramatic and steady progress on cleaning up the state’s voter registration rolls, particularly in removing duplicate or deceased voters from the lists, but the difficult task of culling ineligible felons remains a challenge, the state Elections Division reported.

“Ever since we launched the statewide voter registration database back in January 2006, we have been able to remove 160,000 invalid registrations, including a number who were signed up in more than one county, voters who had died, and convicted felons who have not had their voting rights restored,” state Elections Director Nick Handy said in a press release.

“But we would be the first to acknowledge that dealing with felon voters is a work in progress. Ultimately, we need state lawmakers to clear the way by passing reform legislation.”

To scrub the voter rolls four times a year of ineligible felons, the state uses information from the Department of Corrections and the Administrator of the Courts. The Elections Division made a conscious decision not to use data from the Washington State Patrol or historical files from the DOC because these records do not reveal whether a person is eligible or ineligible to vote.

During the past three years, 11,610 felon registrations have been cancelled.

Handy’s comments came after KIRO-TV aired a story on offenders who are still on the voter rolls, some presumably without having had their voting rights restored. Handy took issue with methodology used in the story, but concurred that the state needs a better system for scrutinizing registrations of ineligible felon voters, particularly those who were convicted years ago.

Handy said the KIRO data is seriously flawed and is reminiscent of the situation in Florida in 2000, where election officials purged more than 57,000 possibly ineligible felons from the voter rolls and later were roundly criticized for canceling many legitimate voters in their sweep.

“The KIRO data stretches back to the 1800s and contains no information about whether voting rights have been restored,” he said. “Most of the cases involve files that have already been closed by the Department of Corrections.

“There is no definitive list of people who are ineligible to vote and we do not simply revoke registrations based on speculative data or mere statistics. The government must have real evidence before we go canceling a person’s registration. To do otherwise would violate citizens’ civil rights.”

The Elections Division has been clear on the criteria for dealing with felons, and a six-page explanatory report has been posted on the Secretary of State’s Web site for weeks, he said.

Still, Handy said, the Elections Division has consistently advised the Legislature of the need for reform.

“Great improvement has been made in screening registrations, but major reform still is needed when it comes to dealing with people who have been convicted of felonies at some point in their lives. The courts have changed the legal landscape several times in the past few years as we attempted to discern a 'bright line' for when an ex-offender should have voting rights restored.”

A central question has been whether the offender must complete not just imprisonment and community supervision, but also restitution and payment of all court costs and attorney fees before applying to a judge to have voting rights restored. That is the way state law reads, but a judge ruled that unconstitutional and said voting should be restored after inmates leave Department of Corrections jurisdiction. The state Supreme Court later reversed that.

The Legislature has debated the issue for the past several years, with the Senate passing legislation two years ago that would have restored voting rights after the offender completes the sentence and community supervision. The House rejected that, and the issue remains on the table for the upcoming session. For now, there is no “good-to-go” list that tells election officials that an individual has had voting rights restored, and no definitive list of felons and ex-offenders who must not be allowed to vote.

“We are part of the Executive Branch, and it is up to the Legislature to settle this question, to write the policy changes and create a better, clearer, workable system of tracking felons and the judicial process, and dealing with the backlog of possible ineligible voters,” Handy said. “We call upon the Legislature to act promptly.”

If lawmakers do not change the current law about when voter rights are restored, they could mandate and finance databases that would track inmates status as they satisfy post-release restitution and financial obligations, and could require that the Administrator of the Courts keep records of all ex-convicts whose voting rights are restored by the Superior Courts.

The state is committed to aggressively dealing with the issue, even as a more complete answer is developed, Handy said.

“The Elections Division is diligently screening against all available reliable data,” he said. “This remains, however, a work in progress. Unfortunately, reliable data does not exist for many felons whose convictions are many years old. Some of these felons may have had rights restored but others may not. No database exists in Washington state for these voters. Thus, any information about them is speculative, outdated and unreliable.”

Handy complimented KIRO-TV for shining a light on the continuing issue.

“Washington law does not disenfranchise a felon for life,” Handy said. “Washington law allows felons to have voting rights restored when they have completed all of their obligations to society.”

Handy gave this hypothetical example: “John is 70 years old and lives in a nursing home. John was convicted of felony assault in a barroom altercation in the 1950s and was required to pay restitution to the bar. The bar no longer exists.

"John believes he paid the restitution. No records exist on whether restitution was paid. No records are maintained by any public agency as to whether persons like John have had voting rights restored. John registered to vote many years ago based upon his belief that his voting rights had been restored. John would appear on any list like the KIRO list because he was convicted of a felony 50 years ago and is currently registered to vote.

"Under the law, John is an eligible voter if he paid restitution. John is not an eligible voter if he did not pay restitution. John signed an oath on his voter registration form that his voting rights have been restored. Is John an eligible voter? Should the Secretary of State remove John from the voter rolls?

“The Elections Division will not remove voters based on speculative data. The Elections Division will – and does — investigate specific cases based upon credible evidence.

“The voters cited in the KIRO story have signed an oath, under penalty of felony prosecution, that voting rights have been restored. No other data is submitted other than the fact that the person was convicted of a felony at some time in the past. The person may have had rights fully restored, the crime may have been a misdemeanor, not a felony, the crime may have been committed as juvenile offense, or the person may be improperly listed.”

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