OLYMPIA — As Americans last year debated the elections, Victor Sauceda endured tough conversations with friends and others talking about their votes.

Sauceda, 31, was released from prison in October 2019, he said, after serving time for felony convictions — meaning he couldn't vote last November.

"I just feel that shame that goes along with it, telling them I could not vote," said Sauceda. "I felt like I was not good enough to vote."

That dynamic changed Wednesday as Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill restoring the right to vote for Washingtonians convicted of felonies automatically upon their release from incarceration.

Under House Bill 1078, roughly 20,000 people would regain their right to vote, according to the state Department of Corrections.

"While other states are restricting their right to vote, I'm glad that in Washington here, we're expanding our access to democracy," said Inslee in a bill-signing event.

Before now, people with felonies didn't necessarily have their voting rights restored upon leaving prison. Instead, they could regain voting rights after finishing the conditions of their sentence, such as community supervision terms, which can last for months or years.

Sauceda said he served eight years of a 10-year sentence and is due to finish his community supervision later this month. His felony convictions include trafficking in stolen property, residential burglary and unlawful possession of a firearm.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, who is believed to be the first formerly incarcerated lawmaker in America. It passed the Democratic-controlled Legislature on an almost wholly party-line vote.

Republicans opposed to the legislation have argued that certain individuals should be prohibited from regaining their voting rights based on the type of felony they committed. People convicted of violent and sexual offenses, some have argued, shouldn't be given the same right as other offenders before finishing community supervision.

Others, like Sen. Jim McCune, R-Graham, have argued that individuals shouldn't have their voting rights restored until they have completed their full sentences and paid their debt to society.

"Punishment for a crime in Washington does not automatically end at the prison gate, so we should not restore voting rights for convicted felons until they have completed their sentences, including their period under DOC supervision and paying restitution to victims," said McCune in a statement after the bill passed the Senate.

But for Anthony Blankenship, Wednesday was a day of celebration.

Blankenship, 37, was found guilty of contact with a minor for immoral purposes, and while he has served his sentence, he said he remains on community supervision.

The Tacoma resident says he plans to vote in the August primaries.

"It feels surreal to me, that so many people that have been silenced now, have their voices back," said Blankenship, adding later: "As a Black man, this last election cycle was that painful reminder that we haven't moved that far from Jim Crow."

___ (c)2021 The Seattle Times Visit The Seattle Times at www.seattletimes.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.