The Conditional Expansion of Voting Rights

Today, January 25th, I just learned that Bill 5076 has been submitted to the Washington state legislature in order to give people on community custody the ability to vote. The vote on it will be held on January 30th.

Currently, people that are getting out of prison are not allowed to vote until they are off community custody. However, if a person’s LFOs have not been paid off then the prosecutor can ask the court to revoke that right until the formally incarcerated person shows a
“good faith effort” to pay. In short, it’s not actually a right by any means; it’s a privilege which is taken away if a body doesn’t behave themselves.

What this bill is wanting to do is two fold, 1) allow people on community custody to vote 2) expand the ability to take away the privilege of voting based on unpaid LFOs to include allowing the survivor(s) of an individual’s crime to ask the court to revoke that privilege.

I need to take a moment to name something here. I’ve got serious reservations about the various terms used to refer to people who have been hurt by another person through their criminal actions. Victim, survivor, receiver, none of these feel right to me and since (as far as I know) there isn’t a block of people hurt by criminal actions publicly telling us how to refer to them… I’m going with “survivor” for now simply because I don’t know what term I should go with and the term “victim” comes from the prosecutor’s office so I’m assuming it’s bad. But I digress…

This is where the debate becomes murky for many reasons.

First is the question of empowering the survivors of crime. Generally, this is something I think of as a good thing. However, empowering them to act in retributive ways (like taking away another person’s ability to vote) strikes me as a very bad idea. The whole reason civilization invented courts in the first place was to have a neutral arbitrator of disputes and prevent retribution. While I don’t necessarily buy into the concept of civilization being a good thing, I do think preventing retribution is a positive value.

Second is the emphasis on LFO’s. Even with the 12.5% interest rate of LFO’s having been reduced (to what, I don’t know) it’s still a massive debt which people, particularly poor people just getting out of prison, don’t have the ability to pay at all. Let alone pay off. I’m supposed to, by court order, pay $25 towards my massive $50,000 LFO debt every month. I haven’t made a singe payment towards it the entire time I’ve been in prison. The DOC garnishes 20% of any money sent to my general spendable account by someone outside prison and puts that toward my LFOs, but I am far too destitute to be able to send $25 anywhere. I can barely afford to buy basic hygiene items, like soap, toothpaste, deodorant, and shampoo. By centering LFOs they are creating a situation where technically people have the ability to gain the privilege to vote, but no one is able to meet the requirements of voting unless they happen to be wealthy (insert an intersectional critique of criminalizing bodies of color, poverty, and the history of state sponsored oppression here). Centering LFOs would create an unpayable poll tax for anyone who has been through the criminal justice system. Last I checked, poll taxes aren’t allowed by ruing of SCOTUS.

Third is, why not just let everyone vote? The entire purpose of universal suffrage was to give Everyone the Right to Vote. Period. So why don’t we just do that? Granted, at the state level, this could only be extended as far as to granting all US citizens in Washington state the right to vote, but enacting actual universal suffrage would seriously detangle a lot of the issues with bill 5076. However, this now veers the debate away from arguing the issue, and into arguing our method for approaching the issue.

There are two sides to it, incrementalists and fell-swoopers.
Incrementalists say that we should make the change we can, then come back and make another change and another change and another change until we actually have what we want. Fell-swoopers say we should push for exactly what we want and demand radical change.

The problem with the incrementalist approach is that they have to renegotiate every single small change they want. This allows their opponents to undermine the changes they want enacted even while they are working for those changes. The trouble with the fell-swoop approach is by asking for everything at once they frighten risk-averse lawmakers who may agree with what they want to do, but are worried about the unintended consequences of massive radical change.

I’m a both-ander. I think we need the incrementalists to be making their small changes over time so that the massive radical changes demanded by fell-swoopers become more palatable and therefore are more likely to be passed by frightened lawmakers. In my way of seeing it, the efforts of both need to be supported by everyone in both camps, as opposed to what usually happens where people in each camp says the other is ideologically dumb and no one should support their thing because our thing is obviously better. Ya know, that old Us/Them thing in action.

In short, I think that this bill should be both critiqued and supported. I also think someone needs to introduce a bill for true universal suffrage in Washington state next year. So if you or someone you know are interested in working on that, I’ve got some people on a humble little legislative committee to introduce you to and they just so happen to be working on legislation for voting rights.



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