Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic released a new report, ‘Can’t Pay, Can’t Vote: A National Survey on the Modern-Day Poll Tax’, one of the first comprehensive studies of how voting rights restoration schemes deny the right to vote to those who cannot afford to pay legal debt.
Nationwide, as many as 23 million citizens have felony convictions.
In 2019, at least 30 states continue to disenfranchise some of these citizens based on wealth.
As demonstrated by stories from the report of Floridians like Bonnie Raysor, citizens struggle under the restrictive conditions of rights restoration because they are unable to pay off their financial obligations. This illustrates the larger problem of how states can effectively extend the period of disenfranchisement for many years.
Although wealth should never be a determining factor in an American’s ability to participate in the electoral process, for far too many individuals, access to the ballot is determined by their ability to pay – a modern-day poll tax.
In order to ensure that legal debt does not disenfranchise American citizens, states should adopt policies that either eliminate felony disenfranchisement entirely or restore the right to vote upon release from incarceration.
Felony disenfranchisement laws and poll taxes, both relics of the Jim Crow era, emerged as ways to disenfranchise African Americans.
Today, like when they were created, the hurdles created by these policies disproportionately disenfranchise communities of color, poor whites, Native Americans and other marginalized communities.
Unlike felony disenfranchisement laws, poll taxes were abolished nationwide in the 1960s. In 1966 the U.S. Supreme Court held that the use of poll taxes in state elections violated the Fourteenth Amendment and that wealth should not be a factor in determining an individuals’ ability to vote. However, debt associated with the criminal justice system continues to act as a modern poll tax.
According to the report:
- 8 states explicitly condition voting rights restoration of formerly incarcerated individuals on the payment of fines and fees: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Washington.
- 20 states do so implicitly: Alaska, California, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
- 2 states that permanently disenfranchise convicted individuals require payment of fines and fees for clemency eligibility: Iowa and Kentucky.
- 20 states and the District of Columbia do not condition the right to vote on the payment of fines and fees.