‘The ability to vote is a powerful tool’: Voting rights restored to people with felony convictions

SPOKANE, Wash. — Being able to vote gives us a voice. More than 20,000 people in Washington now have a voice again. The right to vote is being restored to people convicted with felony offenses.

For some former prisoners, restarting their lives after getting out is challenging.

“The idea of prison was meant for rehabilitating,” said Nathaniel Roberts.

The stigma that comes with people who have a criminal history, it stays with them for a while.

Roberts says he’s seen all the reactions when he tells people of his past in prison. He was charged with a murder at 17.

“When I do mention that, I tell them in the way of like no doubt. I feel remorse. I feel guilt every day,” he continued. “Even now, it was a horrible situation. I think about the victim every day.”

He spent 21 years in prison paying for what he did. He was released in 2019 and is now on parole.

Roberts says he’s still paying for what happened. It’s been tough for him to get back to a regular life after prison, not being able to easily find a job.

“When you have gone to prison, it’s one of the most dehumanizing times in your life. You lose everything,” said Representative Tarra Simmons, serving the 23rd district in Washington.

Simmons knows what Roberts is going through. She went through it herself as a former prisoner. She fought her way to become a legislator and now she’s fighting for the rights of people like her and Roberts.

One milestone in that is getting the right to vote restored to people with felony convictions.

Governor Jay Inslee signed policy that into law Wednesday. It allows people, who finished their time in prison, to have the right to automatically vote again. This includes people who are in parole and probation, which it did not before.

“The ability to vote is a powerful tool, I believe,” Roberts said. “It opens the opportunity for people in my situation, to vote on things that would be beneficial for myself as well as for others.”

However, not everyone believes that. Some Republican legislators want prisoners to finish out all the terms of their sentence before voting.

Advocates say those previously in prison already did their time. Giving them the right to vote helps gives people who were in prison a sense of community again.

Danielle Armbruster, the assistant secretary for the re-entry division of Washington’s Department of Corrections, said that right helps them be a part of democracy.

“Having the ability to vote is just one of those basic human rights that you or I have, so why would we not allow them to do that? They’ve paid their debt. Now, it’s time to move on and allow them to integrate back into society,” Armbruster said.

While some may see getting that right back to vote is small, it’s helpful to people like Roberts. It gives him a little sense of belonging again as he continues to better himself.

“I’m appreciative of it. I feel more connected with society,” Roberts said.

The law goes into effect in January, as Simmons says they’ve had to work with some county auditors to make sure they did it in a “thoughtful way.”

RELATED: Washington governor signs bill restoring voting rights after prison release