Often, conversations about ex-offenders’ voting rights center around state laws that wholesale prevent people with a conviction record from casting their ballots. But a new study from the Alliance for a Just Society shows that even in states were they technically have the right to vote, the poorest among the millions of Americans with conviction histories could be shut out of the voting booth altogether.
“Disenfranchised by Debt: Millions Impoverished by Prison, Blocked from Voting” examines how ex-offenders—particularly people of color—living in 30 states are blocked from voting because of unpaid legal financial obligations (LFO). From court fines to laundry expenses, many offenders leave jail or prison with high interest debt, and up to 75 percent of them are unable to secure employment within a year of release, let alone settle those debts. Conversely, those with greater financial means are able to quickly return to civic life.
The reports’ authors argue that laws that require payment of those debts in exchange for a spot on the voter rolls effectively create a two-tiered voting system that prioritizes the rights of the well off over those of the poverty stricken. For those who are paying attention, it feels very similar to poll taxes, which were fines levied to prevent Blacks from voting during the Jim Crow era. It doesn’t help that states with a high proportion of Black citizens are more likely than others to have disenfranchisement laws.
From the report:
There are 30 states that require all LFOs be paid in order for people with conviction records to regain the right to vote. While some of these states, like Connecticut, explicitly state that payment of LFOs is required to regain the right to vote, other states, like Kansas, require that probation be completed—which is contingent upon payment of all legal financial obligations. Additionally, some states include explicit language on LFOs in disenfranchisement laws and also have mechanisms that extend probation and/or parole if such fines and fees are left unpaid.
“Legal financial obligations prevent ex-offenders from rebuilding a productive life,” Allyson Fredericksen, senior policy analyst and author of the report, said in a statement. “Many of these issues can be ended by reducing fees and eliminating interest on debt while incarcerated. The ability to pay should never be a criteria for voting.”
Key recommendations include:
- Limit interest rates for LFOs
- Clarify criteria for determining ability to pay LFOs, and use them to determine voting eligibility
- Restrict courts from sending unpaid LFOs to collection agencies
- Automatically register ex-offenders when they become eligible to vote
- Include prison-issued ID in when crafting voter identification laws
- Justice Department investigation of state disenfranchisement laws