RE-AIR: Restoring the Right to Vote with Cyril Walrond and Kelly Olson of the Washington Voting Rights Restoration Coalition

RE-AIR: Restoring the Right to Vote with Cyril Walrond and Kelly Olson of the Washington Voting Rights Restoration Coalition

On today’s midweek show, Kelly Olson and Cyril Walrond of the Washington Voting Rights Restoration Coalition join Crystal to talk about the importance of voting rights and the successful effort in the 2021 legislative session to pass HB 1078, which restores those rights to all formerly incarcerated people in Washington and took effect on January 1, 2022. They discuss the impacts that historic disenfranchisement has had on marginalized communities, how democracy that purports to represent all people needs to hear all people’s voices, and how the coalition lived that philosophy by including impacted people in their leadership. Kelly and Cyril provide insight into the effective strategy used in navigating the convoluted legislative process, the critical need for education about voting rights restoration, and what we need to fight for next.

As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at

Follow us on Twitter at @HacksWonks. Find the host, Crystal Fincher, on Twitter at @finchfrii and find information about the Washington Voting Rights Restoration Coalition at

Kelly Olson

Kelly Olson is Policy Manager and a member of the Leadership Team for the Washington Voting Rights Restoration Coalition.

Cyril Walrond

Cyril Walrond is a member of the Leadership and Steering Committees for the Washington Voting Rights Restoration Coalition.


Washington Voting Rights Restoration Coalition

HB 1078 - Restoring voter eligibility for all persons convicted of a felony offense who are not in total confinement under the jurisdiction of the department of corrections

Washington must allow everyone in the community to vote” by Sarah Eichhorn from Real Change Opinion

WA Senate must restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated people” by Christopher Poulos from Crosscut Opinion

Washington State Senate Passes Voting Rights Restoration Bill” by abigail from Washington Voting Justice Coalition

Bill restores voting rights to Washingtonians with felonies upon release from prison” by Joseph O’Sullivan from The Seattle Times

What It Feels Like to Have Your Voting Rights Restored” by Alyssa Knight from The Stranger

Questions about how to vote after a felony conviction?

Resources - Washington Voting Rights Restoration Coalition

A guide to voting after a felony conviction in Washington State” from ACLU of Washington


[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington State through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at and in our episode notes.

I am very excited about this show that we're doing today - it's about a very important issue. We talk about campaigns, we talk about issues, but really - people being able to make their voice heard is the most important fundamental right that we have. And we have guests today from the Washington Voting Rights Restoration Coalition that I am just thrilled to have - so we have Kelly Olson, who's a Policy Manager and member of the Leadership Team, and Cyril Walrond, who is also on the Leadership Team and a member of the Steering Committee, with us today. Welcome!

[00:01:14] Kelly Olson: Thank you - it's good to be here.

[00:01:15] Cyril Walrond: Yeah, thank you - glad to be here with you today.

[00:01:17] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. So I guess starting with Kelly - who is the Washington Voting Rights Restoration Coalition? What work do you do? And for both of you, what brought you to this work? We can start with Kelly.

[00:01:30] Kelly Olson: So the Washington Voting Rights Coalition is, as the name implies, a coalition of a bunch of different organizations and individuals who are interested in voting rights and making sure that everybody has their right to vote. And in particular, we were focused on restoring the right to vote for people who have been formerly incarcerated. And so this group came together a couple years ago to work on restoring the right to vote for - the way that it works in Washington State, or the way it did work, is that for those - once you leave incarceration and as long as you're paying on your fees and fines, you have the right to vote unless you are under community custody. So if you get out and are in work release or have some sort of probation or community custody officer, you did not have your right to vote restored until you are off community custody. So the coalition came together and felt that people who are out there in the community and working really should have their right to vote. We actually believe that the vote shouldn't be - the right to vote shouldn't be taken away in the beginning. But we're started with this and so - I, myself, am formerly incarcerated and left prison in 2007. And that's a big reason why I am involved in this and other justice, criminal justice-related causes - is to break down that stigma and the barriers that we face as we're released.

[00:03:09] Crystal Fincher: Excellent. And what brought you to this work, Cyril?

[00:03:12] Cyril Walrond: What brought me to this work is that I too am a directly impacted person. I was incarcerated for almost 17 years - since the age of 17 - and so I was incarcerated before I had the opportunity to engage in our democracy or even allow my voice to be heard, particularly on things that directly affect me and my community. And so when I think about the impact that this had on myself, as one who was incarcerated at such a young early age - I realized that we as a community too often give our power away. And the way for us to reclaim our power is by taking our power back by our voice, and making sure that our voices are heard and represented at these decision-making tables. And furthermore, to create tables for ourselves. But when I think about that, I just want to make sure that through this work and through my engagement with it, that others can see themselves in this work - other young people, young Black men who have been captured within this system, the criminal justice system, to realize that their voice matters, their experience matters. And for other BIPOC people to realize that we don't need to continue to allow ourselves to be marginalized by a system that been set up to marginalize us, but we have ownership and stake that we can put in at wherever we are and whatever our experiences may be.

[00:04:23] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, absolutely - it's so important. And one thing I think is that a lot of people don't realize how many people are currently and formerly have been incarcerated.

[00:04:34] Cyril Walrond: Oh yeah, for sure.

[00:04:34] Crystal Fincher: And how many people are disenfranchised, have been disenfranchised - are caught up in this system. How does this impact the community and how many people are we talking about here?

[00:04:45] Cyril Walrond: I believe that I saw a number that this piece of legislation that we helped to pass - House Bill 1078 - was going to restore the right to vote for about 20,000 people. And I believe that when we look at that number, that's 20,000 people who are community members that were disenfranchised. And particularly when we think about voting and elections on a municipal level or the local level, that has significant change because the margins for these votes are so small and so tight. But what's even more shocking to me is how the place that our most commonly marginalized, when it comes to the vote or the greatest disparities, are often some of the - we have epicenters of disenfranchisement within our communities and that's where the brunt of this number comes from.

[00:05:37] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, absolutely. Why is this so impactful to you, Kelly?

[00:05:40] Kelly Olson: The big reason for me is just understanding the racism that was involved in taking the right to vote away in the beginning. It was meant to suppress the vote of marginalized communities, specifically the Black community - and understanding that and fighting for it, I think, is really what got me interested in it. And making sure that we get the right to vote back to as many people as we can and we'll continue fighting until we can stop it from being taken away in the first place.

[00:06:14] Crystal Fincher: So that House Bill 1078, Cyril, that you talked about - passing and successfully passing through the Legislature. It is not easy to pass legislation. It is not easy to go through the creation, to go through the confusing and often dramatic process of it going between committees and all of the hearings and all of that. What was the process like for you in passing this legislation? And looking at that experience, how do you think you going through that helps you moving forward?

[00:06:47] Cyril Walrond: So for me, the experience was a learning experience. I had not been actively engaged in politics or in this arena. And typically when you have these structures of systemic power, they speak a language that excludes those who are impacted by those decisions. And so for me, being in this position and being able to have the privilege of engaging in this work, I realized that I was learning a new language, right? And through learning this new language, I was trying to share this language to my brothers and my comrades and my counterparts who were also co-laboring with me in this work. And in doing this, I was able to say, Hey, well, this language may sound one way, but in reality this is all that is saying and this is all that it means. And so really, while they're trying to push us out and exclude us through that - No, in reality, no. We speak just like this in our own language and now let us find our voices to push back.

[00:07:41] Crystal Fincher: For you, Kelly, what was this process of going through the legislative process with this effort like for you?

[00:07:48] Kelly Olson: Like Cyril said, it was a real learning experience. I did intern at the Legislature a few years after prison, and so I learned a lot about it then. And our director at my job, which is the Civil Survival Project, is a state legislator and she was the prime sponsor of the bill and also formerly incarcerated. And so I think that brought a lot of power to the bill, but also brought somebody who is from our community as far as being formerly incarcerated and somebody who really could speak to why this is so important and help us understand the process. And we had a lot of people in the community that have been around - lobbyists and other people - that really helped us understand the language, understand the unwritten rules of the Legislature - which is the hardest rules to learn - and I think just making those connections and building a network. And it did take a couple legislative sessions - so I worked on this bill for two years - two different legislative sessions to get it passed. So we learned a lot - in the first session when we pulled the bill off the Senate floor, the debate got ugly - they used horrible language. And we ended up saying, Just pull the bill - and we started over for the next session.

[00:09:15] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, I remember that. It was a very, very ugly debate and really showed how important it is to have people who are directly impacted and who do have experience with this to talk about how impactful it is and what it definitely means. And not this caricature that some people have in their minds from the decades of misinformation surrounding issues like this. So in this process - the process of passing legislation can be challenging. Having a legislator like Representative Tarra Simmons, who was able to understand some of the experiences that you've had and bring her expertise and experience to this has been important. But it also took community to do this. What was that effort like and what was the community effort like in passing this legislation?

[00:10:07] Cyril Walrond: Yeah, I believe that the community effort in passing this legislation was relentless. There was a commitment throughout the state of different stakeholders and committed community members who were devoted to seeing the passage of this piece of legislation. As we had our coalition calls and our meetings - and in fact during this time, I was actually calling from inside of prison myself while I was still in custody - but while we're doing this work, we see regularly that people are championing within their own districts, that people are writing letters and engaging with legislators, that there was a collective push and effort to make sure that we were moving to put pressure on our individual legislators, but also to make sure that the broader work was being done. And the values and principles that the collective was standing on were very well in line, so as we got to the point of the legislative session - that we all were in agreement and alignment and knew - with clarity - where we wanted to go and how we wanted to get this done. And so that it was accountable to those who it would be impacting.

[00:11:10] Crystal Fincher: And what was the experience like working with Representative Tarra Simmons?

[00:11:14] Cyril Walrond: The experience working with Representative Tarra Simmons was quite the experience. Having a representative who experienced not only incarceration, but disenfranchisement, and to have her champion this bill was an incredible asset and just a great way to leverage the bill and the momentum that community was pushing forward with this. She was able to bring in her experience and, even as a young legislator, had the zealousness behind her and just a commitment and effort to do things that many other legislators wouldn't have done. And in particular, I think about the way in which she tried and attempted to move accountably with community and for community, particularly those who are impacted by this piece of legislation. That was something that I recognized that she did. And honestly, nobody's perfect, but I believe that the way that she went about it was a shift in a new direction of how things can go and how we can move towards more accountable representation in the legislative process.

[00:12:17] Crystal Fincher: Kelly, you talked about this being a multi-session effort, that this wasn't successful on its first time. What was that process like? How did you stay organized and keep the momentum going after the setback in the prior session? And how did you organize for the successful push in this past session?

[00:12:39] Kelly Olson: Yeah, I think a big part of it was - the first year that I worked on it, I was really just a member of the coalition and not super - not quite as engaged. And in the second year, we really pushed to have directly impacted people at the leadership. And so there was actually four of us who were formerly incarcerated and then Cyril who is currently incarcerated, that took over the leadership in the second year. And I think that really helped with the grassroots organizing and getting people directly involved. We also worked hard to understand who - where some of the opposition was. And we worked hard in particular to get the county auditors on board. A lot of the pushback on the opposition and some of the things that we really stood strong on was we wanted a really clean bill. We didn't want to have what's called a carveout, where we say - well, people committed of this crime are worthy to vote, and people committed of this crime are not worthy of vote. We believe that you go through the criminal justice system, you have your hearing, you get judged - and we shouldn't be judged every time where we turn around. And so one of the things that I think was also helpful was getting the county auditors on board - they actually preferred a really clean bill, which they call "a bright line" - if you wanted to carveout for certain offenses, then you have auditors having to look into people's criminal records and decide what kind of crime they have, do they qualify, do they not qualify? But early on, and Cyril was a big part of this too, we set our values and we really had held strong to - we were not going to - we didn't want to see a bill pass that had any carveouts based on a type of crime. It was either all of us, or none of us. And so that was a really big thing. And I think having the momentum of Rep Simmons in there and having that lived experience to help us on the inside helped. But as Cyril mentioned, the grassroots organizing on the outside was really important.

[00:14:54] Crystal Fincher: So as we look at - the legislation was passed, now it's been implemented - people are eligible. How are you working to get the word out to communities? Because I would think that there's still a lot of people who are just learning that they're eligible - I know I certainly learned this too long after the fact. And speaking to other people, they're still getting out. What efforts, Cyril, are being made now to make sure everybody who is eligible to vote knows that they are?

[00:15:28] Cyril Walrond: There's a number of different efforts that are taking place through the work of our coalition and in other spaces to inform community - to our returning community members, such as myself, that their voices matter and that their right to vote has been restored. For myself - real quick - I actually was released August 1st, and by August 2nd, I not only was a registered voter, but I actually had voted for the first time. And when I did that, I was able to share my experience with those who I engage with and let them know - if I can do this a day out of prison, after almost 17 years, you can do this, right? And explain to them and educate them on their rights, educate them on just the history of voter disenfranchisement, and furthermore our need to get engaged. So there is the organic and individual work that's being done by the work of the credible messengers, who was a part of this coalition and individually lived experiences, who actively engage in educating community and host different events. There's work that's being done through the Communications Committee and working on art installations and different ways of actively engaging with community artists, with those who are storytellers, on how to share this message and build the narrative on the importance of voting rights.

But there's many, many things that are being done actively. Let me not forget the work that's being done around jail voting. When it comes to jail voting, many people are - they feel that they're disenfranchised pre-trial. But in reality, you still have your right to vote even before or up until you get convicted of a crime. And we are doing work to educate people - going into jails, letting them know what's taking place, how people are able to be registered while in jail, as well as once they get out of prison have their rights restored. So there's education, education, education - making sure people know and that people are learning these things at every level and every step of the way.

[00:17:40] Crystal Fincher: And that's so important. Thank you for mentioning that because it is so true - people are innocent until proven guilty. And we just recently did a show on bail reform and talked about how many people are detained pre-trial without having been convicted of a crime. So yes, they are in jail, but they have been convicted of nothing. They still have their rights, but the access to ballots, to be able to vote is so severely restricted that it is a challenge. And so thank you for bringing that up and for the work that you're doing on that. Kelly, as now you're looking, moving forward - what are other things that this coalition is advocating for?

[00:18:24] Kelly Olson: Right now our focus is really on education. In addition to just educating people on this bill, there has also been a lot of misinformation that has been part of the history of voter disenfranchisement. We have talked about wanting to do full restoration. There is some research and strategy going on around that, but it's a little bit on the back burner as we focus on education up to this next election. And then I think that we'll start to talk a little bit more about what does full restoration look like. There is fighting going on at the federal level as well to do full restoration. Full restoration is a little more complicated than just passing a bill. It needs an amendment to our State Constitution, so that makes it just a little bit more complicated and something I still need to learn more about.

[00:19:19] Crystal Fincher: Cyril, looking at the work that you've done - through all of the education, through the legislative process - certainly there have been lots of misconceptions and misunderstandings that have been brought up to you. What are the most frequent misconceptions that you encounter?

[00:19:36] Cyril Walrond: There are misconceptions that we, as incarcerated individuals and formerly incarcerated individuals, often deal with. First, the stigmatization of incarceration or having been justice impacted. With that, there is the belief of - lack of desire, lack of interest, or even lack of ability to be involved in a system or in the right to vote, right? To be able to go up, to show up, and to have your voice heard. Many people think that they're excluded because they don't understand how this system is worked, or how it's set up, or structured to work. But the reality is - what I found - is many people incarcerated are actually much more civically engaged and civically educated than many people that I've encountered in community in returning. And so it's many of us who are coming from incarceration that are educating community on what our experiences have been, and what some of these nuances are within the legislative process, as we have directly been impacted by it.

I also think another misconception is that people who - the right to vote is something that only belongs to some, right? But I believe that the reality of this is - if we believe in a democracy that represents all people, then all people's voices should be heard. But when we intentionally, or for whatever reason, exclude the voices of some - then as Kelly mentioned before, it's all of us or none. A democracy that represents some people cannot serve the interest of all people. And making sure that through the things that we do, through this work and through the acknowledgement of those misconceptions and the educating against those misconceptions, but more importantly educating to know the reality despite those misconceptions, I believe that we're able to change the narrative and allow people to see that we are lacking in the power of community and the power of our democracy because everybody's not being represented.

[00:21:39] Crystal Fincher: Excellent points. And Kelly, what are the biggest misunderstandings that you encounter?

[00:21:44] Kelly Olson: I would say that some of the biggest misunderstandings are that, especially for those of us doing this work, that we can only speak to our lived experience as being formerly incarcerated - that that's the only voice or lens that we bring to this, where we actually have a lot of other lived experience. And so a lot of times - you might be on a panel with other experts and they might ask the lawyer the policy question when I could very well answer that same question. But the question that will come to me is something about being formerly incarcerated. So remembering that we can speak on multiple topics and have a lot of depth to us - our incarceration is just one small part of our story. And actually - maybe a big part of our story - but regardless, there's a lot more depth to us than our experience of incarceration. And so just remembering that we can speak on many levels, many topics - whether it's related to incarceration or not.

[00:22:55] Crystal Fincher: Such an important point. And I have seen that personally play out in so many meetings and panels and discussions - and they're worse off for it. So a great reminder and really useful to remember that. Is there anything else you would add to that, Cyril?

[00:23:12] Cyril Walrond: I would like to add - in addition to that - that there is the belief that democracy can be monetized, that there are some who are proponents of making sure that LFO fines and different things are paid off. And I know we were able to get around that with this bill and were able to push to make sure that once an individual is returning to community, that they have their rights restored. And that was one of the areas that they really were trying to push carveouts - it's saying that legal financial obligations must be paid for. And in doing so, that goes back to and points a bright light at the racist history of voter disenfranchisement, particularly by way of Jim Crow law, Black codes, and even poll taxes. And so when we look at the origins of how there has been a history of disenfranchisement, a history of suppressing and oppressing the voices of Black and Brown people, we have to also look at how is this mechanism being done? And then question those misconceptions that are often being raised.

[00:24:11] Crystal Fincher: Thank you for that - that's important and true. Now, moving forward, I guess just as we conclude here - what advice, Kelly, would you give to people organizing - whether it's with regard to voting rights or whatever is happening in their community - what advice would you give to people about how to get involved in the processes that control how their community functions and how to make their voice heard?

[00:24:38] Kelly Olson: That's a great question. I think that getting involved with a local organization that's aligned with the work that you want to work on, paying attention to - a lot of times people don't get very involved in some of the smaller local elections, and I think it's important to get to know who your representatives are, not just at the state level, but at the local level. So, meet your elected officials, talk to them, find out what are the issues that they are working on. And letting them know what issues are important to you is really important. We've got an election coming up. I think it's really important to be educated about who the candidates are, getting involved if you can, research them, and then finding organizations. If you're formerly incarcerated, Civil Survival Project is - works on different legislation. You're welcome to reach out to our organization to get more involved and there's other organizations out there too. But I think one of the biggest things is getting to know your elected officials and getting to know the issues that are out there and that you want to work on.

[00:25:43] Crystal Fincher: Thank you. And Cyril, what advice would you give to people who want to make a difference and make their voices heard?

[00:25:50] Cyril Walrond: The advice I would give to those who want to make a difference and make their voice heard is that you can make a difference and make your voice heard. It doesn't take much, right? When we think about just the power to impact and influence change and to be agents of change within our lives and within our communities, within this country, everybody has within themselves to do it. And what you bring to the table as an individual can very well impact the collective. I think that it's important to not do it in isolation, right? There's an African proverb says, You want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. And making sure that you connect with organizations that are moving accountably, that are committed to this work, that are grounded in principle and particularly principles and values that are life-affirming and humanizing and recognize the value of the individuals that that they seek to serve. Many spaces come with the mindset or concept of saviorism, as opposed to being able to cultivate and share in community together. Realizing that one thing that affects one, affects the other. And so when I think about what people can do is get out, get involved, look up and research different spaces and organizations doing this work, connect with different people that are doing this work. And more importantly, understand that if it's not there in your community, if you live in a small pocket where those things don't exist, I guarantee you that there's other like-minded people who are also impacted by the same issue. That you can begin the process of mobilizing, organizing to affect change in this area and in whatever area is affecting our community.

[00:27:37] Crystal Fincher: Thank you very much for that. Thank you both - Cyril and Kelly - for joining us and sharing with us today. Very important information. You're doing excellent work educating the community. Kelly, if people want to learn more information about the coalition or get involved themselves, how can they get in contact?

[00:27:55] Kelly Olson: The best way would be through our website, which is There's all kinds of materials on there and resources. So again, that's

[00:28:09] Crystal Fincher: All right - thank you both and we appreciate what you are doing and we'll continue following along ourselves. Thank you very much and thanks for listening. Thank you all for listening to Hacks & Wonks. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler. Our assistant producer is Shannon Cheng, and our Post-Production Assistant is Bryce Cannatelli. You can find Hacks & Wonks on Twitter @HacksWonks, and you can follow me @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. You can catch Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered right to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave us a review wherever you listen. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at and in the episode notes.

Thanks for tuning in - talk to you next time.