“When I think about, for me, why this was so important when I came home, [it] is that this was a catalyst for me to connect to community in a real way,” Walrond said. “One of the ways that we can reclaim our humanity is by recognizing our connection to our democracy.”
Walrond and others had a voice in that election because of a new law that took effect last year that automatically restores voting rights to those with felony convictions the moment they exit prison – a change that expanded the franchise to more than 12,000 Washingtonians on probation and parole, along with an indeterminate number who owe court fines.
But of more than 24,000 state residents with past felony convictions now eligible, just 414 cast ballots in the midterms, according to the Office of the Secretary of State. Less than one in 10 eligible voters with past felonies have registered so far.
Voting-rights advocates attribute the low turnout in the first election since the law change to a myriad of barriers facing those reentering society after years of incarceration, as well as the newness of the law and the still-pervasive idea that voting rights never return after felony convictions.
“People still don’t know,” said Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-Bremerton), who sponsored HB 1078, the 2021 law that automatically restored voting rights upon release. Simmons, who had been incarcerated several times herself prior to her election in 2020, said she recently spoke with constituents while doorbelling who still believed they could not vote due to their felony records.
In new legislation this session, Simmons and others are calling for jails and prisons to offer voter registration drives and provide information on voting to current detainees, an idea that has run up against opposition from some local officials. Without more proactive engagement efforts, advocates warn that the voices of former prisoners could continue to be left out.
“It indicates to me that people with conviction histories have not been part of the process for so long,” Simmons said. “We need to do more to include them in our democracy and in our legislative process so they feel like their voice matters.”
Locked out of the polls
Nationwide, some 4.6 million Americans are disenfranchised due to state laws that strip voting rights from people convicted of felonies. Many of those laws date to the Jim Crow period following the abolition of slavery, when white state lawmakers sought to deny newly freed slaves from participating in democracy.
Between 2016 and 2020, 14 states expanded voting rights for former prisoners. Many of these are Democrat-led, but they also include Kentucky, Wyoming and Iowa, which previously had a lifetime ban on voting for those convicted of felonies.
In Washington prior to 2022, courts could strip away the right to vote if people missed payments on their court fines, and those under supervision did not regain their right. Washington is now one of 21 states that automatically restore voting rights upon release, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Two states – Maine and Vermont – never took voting rights from prisoners. In 11 states, voting remains restricted even after a felony sentence is completed.
Even in states where those with felonies can vote, only a fraction are registered, according to an analysis by The Marshall Project.
Data from the US Elections Project shows about 5.5 million eligible voters in Washington. The last election counted 4.8 million registered voters, putting the general registration rate at over 87% percent. Of the more than 24,000 Washington residents with felony records who the Department of Corrections now estimates to be eligible to vote, just 1,803 people (approximately 7%) have registered.
State election officials reported that 632 of those voters registered in 2022.
Voter “turnout” is typically calculated as a percentage of those registered rather than of all eligible voters. State records show that about 65% of Washington’s registered voters turned out for the November general election. Comparing ballots cast by formerly incarcerated individuals to their registrations gets a November turnout of just 23%.
One voter’s journey
The word Walrond and others often use to describe how many feel upon returning after a prison sentence is “disconnected”: both in a literal sense – being physically isolated from friends, family, neighbors – but also in a more abstract sense, the idea that there is no role for them to play in society, in democracy.
“They feel invisible, they don’t feel heard, they don’t feel as if they belong,” Walrond said. “When they’re able to decide what’s going on with taxes, what’s going on with their children, what’s going on with schools, with healthcare, with levies and bonds … [they] are able to realize that there’s a real-life, real-world experience waiting for them on the other side, that they matter and that their voices matter.”
Walrond said he understands why some people feel so disengaged from elections. Voting was not always top-of-mind for him. He recalled that as a young Black man growing up in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma, he encountered many people who felt alienated from the political process and thought voting was meaningless.
“A lot of people feel that way, like, if these are my only options, I don’t want to vote,” Walrond said. “I saw a lot of political commentary but not a lot of political contributions.”
It was a 17-year prison sentence that reframed his view of elections, among many other things. In 2006, Walrond, then a teenager, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder.
“When I was incarcerated, I had a lot of time and many years just to reflect on the impact of my actions, and in doing so I recognized that there is no way to undo the harm that I’ve caused,” Walrond said. “But I can make these conscious decisions to honor the life that was lost and the people that were hurt.”
For Walrond, getting involved in advocacy around voting rights and criminal justice reform was one way for him to reconnect to the society that he felt so estranged from growing up – and also to atone for his mistakes. He became a member of the coalition’s steering committee, which he has since stepped back from to focus on his job as an Outreach and Advocacy Coordinator for University Behind Bars, an initiative he cites as instrumental to his journey.
He credited the education and advocacy work for what he describes as a “complete paradigm shift from being that naïve, impulsive, impetuous juvenile that I was to a grown, mature, functional and contributing member of society that I am today.”
Getting the word out
Voting rights advocates point to confusion about the status of their rights as a major issue keeping formerly incarcerated people from the polls.
“It’s a common thought that you lose your right to vote when you have a felony, that civic death applies across the board,” said Anthony Blankenship, a senior community organizer at the nonprofit Civil Survival who spent time in prison before joining the ACLU. He recalled many voter registration drives where people with conviction histories were shocked to learn they could vote.
Simmons, who also leads Civil Survival, called on the state Department of Corrections to provide inmates information about how to register to vote upon their release from prison.
“DOC community corrections officers should be giving people their welcome packet, and it should include voting registration and information about their rights,” Simmons said.
DOC spokesperson Tobby Hatley wrote in an email that the agency does provide “release packets” that include information about the law change, but would not provide a copy without a records request. Crosscut's request has not yet been fulfilled.
The agency has not sent mailers to former prisoners notifying them of their new eligibility. Hatley said they don’t send mailers because they don’t track the addresses of all former prisoners, including some still on supervision. Others are homeless or not easily located.
Pushback on jail outreach
That confusion about voting is perhaps greatest in jails, where people’s involvement with the justice system typically begins. About 75% of the people in Washington’s jails are being held pretrial, according to a 2019 report by a state task force that looked at the most populous counties. These people are eligible to vote, yet many may not know they can legally cast a ballot, or are not afforded the opportunity to.
A bill sponsored by Simmons this session would require county jails to implement “jail voting plans” and provide registration information and ballots to inmates. That bill passed out of the House Committee on State Government and Tribal Relations on Jan. 31.
The state does not track ballots cast by people inside county jails, Simmons told lawmakers at a committee hearing last month. But Thurston County auditor Mary Hall told Bolts Magazine that in past elections they’d counted just three votes from jail inmates. (That number increased to 40 this past election, due to state funding for outreach.)
Simmons’ efforts have met some resistance on the local level, notably in Spokane County, where Republican commissioners denied a request by county auditor Vicky Dalton to apply for state funding to provide voting information and resources to jail inmates.
Washington made $2.5 million in grants available to counties last year for that purpose, but only five applied, Bolts Magazine reported.
In the article, Commissioner Al French is quoted echoing a belief common among those opposed to expanding ballot-box access to those in jail: They will vote for Democrats who support shrinking the criminal justice system.
“So if you’re a candidate that’s campaigning on a position of being tough on crime, obviously you’re not going to get a lot of votes out of the jail, and the inverse of that also could apply,” French said during the commission meeting.
Data on incarcerated people’s political leanings is limited, but one poll of more than 8,000 prisoners conducted by The Marshall Project during the 2020 primaries suggested a “diverse and often contradictory set of beliefs” that evolved during long sentences, and diverged greatly by race.
Notably, 45% of white respondents said they would vote for Donald Trump.
“I don’t believe for one minute that everyone in prison believes prisons should be abolished,” said Jim Chambers, a support specialist with Weld Seattle, an organization that helps connect people to jobs and housing after release.
Chambers served 22 years on multiple charges before being released in 2021. While he does not personally identify as conservative, he met many people on the inside who did.
“I think that most Republicans would be shocked at how many conservatives are inside of prisons,” Chambers said.
Simmons also resisted the characterization of incarcerated people as a political monolith, and called the opposition from local leaders “disheartening and sad.”
“They have a lawful right [to vote] and people are innocent until proven guilty,” she said.
Expanding the registration of formerly incarcerated voters could take many years. Advocates say they expect numbers to rise with time and awareness of the law change. But data from other states suggest the real work may be just beginning.
Researchers at MIT found that in Maine, one of only two states that upholds an individual’s right to vote even while locked up, just 6% voted in 2018. And previous studies of states ranging from Iowa to New York found that turnout among former prisoners never topped 18%.
Simmons says getting that 414 total up – the number of state residents with felony convictions who voted in the 2022 midterms – begins with the work of registering people in jails, which she thinks will begin to spark curiosity about their rights and how to exercise them, forming some buy-in that will extend to their release.
A new outreach effort in the Pierce County Jail registered 132 new voters, 55% of whom returned general election ballots, according to Kyle Haugh, elections manager for the Pierce County Auditor’s Office. Haugh noted that in 2020, when no in-person outreach took place, they received just seven ballots from the jail.
Walrond said he thinks he’s making progress on some people in his personal life, too. He recalled a recent conversation with his mom’s partner, who admitted to having given up on voting for a long period of his life. He felt like his vote didn’t matter, and didn’t want to participate in a system that he felt was set up against him. But shortly after the November election, he reached out to Walrond and said that his activism inspired a shift in his thinking.
“It was definitely ambiguous. I’m not sure if he in fact voted. But I do know that he has an interest and recognized the importance and significance of voting,” Walrond said.
“And I know that he’s committed to being a future voter.”
Update: This story includes a clarified quote from Jim Chambers.