Simmons introduces bill to improve voting in jails

OLYMPIA – Innocent until proven guilty. That is the basis of the American criminal legal system. The majority of people incarcerated in county jails have not yet been convicted of a crime; yet each year hundreds of thousands of Americans are denied their right to vote because they are in jail at the time of an election. Recognizing that even Americans who have run afoul of the law have the right to participate in the project of self-government, Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-Bremerton) has introduced House Bill 1174 to improve access and remove barriers to voting in Washington jails.

“All too often those with mental health issues find themselves housed in our county jails. Our cash bail system also means that lower-income people are more likely to spend a significant amount of time in jail. We should not be writing these Americans off,” said Simmons. “My bill will require that county auditors make an effort to ensure that everyone in their county legally able to vote has that opportunity. Innocent until proven guilty is the basis of our criminal legal system. This bill simply asks that we live those values and protect the right to vote.”

House Bill 1174 requires jails to provide incarcerated people with access to voter registration information and access to a ballot at least 18 days before an election. It also requires each county auditor’s office to designate a jail voting coordinator as well as each jail to designate an employee as its jail voting coordinator. County auditors would be required to create a jail voting plan in coordination with the jail voting coordinator and the Office of the Secretary of State for every jail in the county.

Last year, the Office of the Secretary of State ran a grant program to facilitate voting in jails. However, only four counties (Pierce, Kitsap, Snohomish, and Thurston) took advantage of it.

Jails would also be required to allow election officials to enter the jail at least 30 days in advance of each primary and general election to provide voter registration outreach and education to those incarcerated. Additionally, the bill mandates that jails document all voting-related requests and complaints as well as collect data on voter registration and ballot return from people who are incarcerated.

HB 1174 will be heard in the House State Government & Tribal Relations Committee on Friday, January 13th at 8:00 AM.