Can’t Afford To Vote: Lack Of Funds Can Keep Felons From Getting Voting Rights Back

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As states across the country move to restore voting rights to former felons, a spirited debate is underway over which, if any, of the various costs imposed during conviction should be factored into the restoration of basic civil rights.

In Florida, lawmakers and county clerks are wrangling over whether a voter-approved constitutional amendment means that voting rights are contingent on meeting every last financial obligation, ranging from restitution to victims, fines and penalties, administrative costs associated with pretrial detention, court reporter fees, and expert fees.

In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds is getting pushback from some in her own party for suggesting that former felons could get their rights back without fully paying off restitution.

Advocates working in this space told TPM that most former offenders are saddled with crippling mandatory costs that are particularly difficult to meet because their convictions prevent them from obtaining decent-paying jobs. States, they warn, are setting up systems where reinfranchisement is only available to those who can pay.

“It becomes a surprise barrier to a lot of people,” Phil Telfeyan, the executive director of Equal Justice Under the Law, told TPM. “They finish their prison time, they finish their parole, and all of a sudden it’s the unpaid court fines that stop them from voting.”

“If Amendment 4 is interpreted to prohibit reinfranchisement just for people who can’t pay court debt, that’s effectively punishing someone for being poor,” he continued.

There’s little concrete data available on how court-imposed financial obligations prevent former felons from being able to register to vote. A forthcoming law review article from UCLA law professor Beth Colgan provides “the first comprehensive examination” of what she calls the “grossly underestimated” scope of “wealth-based penal disenfranchisement.”

Due to a “tangle of election, clemency, parole, and probation statutes, rules and policies,” Colgan writes, “wealth-based penal disenfranchisement is sanctioned under the laws of forty-eight states and the District of Columbia, potentially preventing up to a million people or more from voting, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color.”

Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project, said Jim Crow-era poll taxes are not a bad framework to understanding the impact of these policies, given their disproportionate impact on people of color.

How this works in practice varies widely between states.

In Florida, Amendment 4 restores the franchise to all former felons—excluding those who committed murder or sexual offenses—“upon completion of their sentences, including prison, parole, and probation.”

A deeply-reported piece from NPR’s Miami affiliate, WLRN, found that a certain interpretation of this language could mean that the state’s felons will have to “pay at minimum hundreds of millions of dollars in outstanding fines” before getting their rights back. Several state criminal statutes—particularly related to drug crimes—explicitly attach heavy fines to offenders’ sentences. In other cases, fines are imposed as “orders” from the judge. Some fines may date back decades, and offenders may not even be aware they have them.

So determining what exactly is counted as part of the “sentence” is crucial.

Ashley Thomas, Florida director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center, said that the Sunshine State has “some of the highest numbers of different kinds of court costs” for former offenders. A drug trafficking conviction, for example, comes with a mandatory $50,000 fine.

“The picture is there’s somebody with a trunk-load of heroin,” Thomas said. “But it could be something like someone has a handful of prescription pills that just goes over a certain number, and then it’s trafficking.”

The GOP-controlled legislature is debating whether all costs would need to be paid in full before someone is cleared to register to vote, and appear likely to take up implementing legislation to clarify that point. The chairmen of the state Senate Ethics and Elections Committee and Senate Criminal Justice Chairman did not return TPM’s requests for comment.

ACLU of Florida political director Kirk Bailey, whose group helped craft Amendment 4, told TPM that their position is that only costs explicitly imposed as part of the sentence would be covered. Additional fines owed to private debt collection agencies, say, or administrative fees would not.

In Iowa—one of two states that permanently disenfranchises felons unless they successfully petition the governor to restore their voting rights—this debate is just getting going. Gov. Reynolds this week unveiled a proposed constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to felons who completed their prison sentences, probation and parole.

Some of her fellow Republicans in the legislature want restitution to be paid in full before the restoration process could move forward. (Under Iowa’s current policy, felons don’t have to pay restitution but must show they’re in good standing with their court-set obligations).

Democratic state Rep. Mary Wolfe called the restitution requirement a “poll tax” in an interview with the Des Moines Register.

“If I’m ordered to pay $6,000 in restitution, I can get a loan and write a check,” Wolfe said. “But if you can’t, what has that have to do with being able to vote? We’re basically using it as a stick to say, ‘If you want to vote, you have to pay this money.'”

Iowa Legal Aid’s Alex Kornya told TPM that court-related costs can be insurmountable for indigent Iowans, who have to pay dollar-for-dollar rates for public defenders and other costs “that are more attributable to indigence than to culpability.”

This fact has Porter of the Sentencing Project concerned that those who want to limit voting rights for felons could seize on court-related costs as a mechanism to do so.

“We certainly don’t want to restrict rights or raise these issues for lawmakers in a way that would encourage lawmakers who are interested in restricting or limiting the vote from finding new ways to do that by requiring obligations in states where it may not be the policy now,” Porter said.

If states like Florida do end up taking this tack, they will likely face litigation from civil rights groups for violating the 14th Amendment, according to Equal Justice Under the Law’s Telfeyan.

“If the Florida powers that be decide that Amendment 4 is meant to exclude people who have unpaid court debt, I believe the federal due process and equal protection clause would have something to say about that,” he said.

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