30 States Deny Vote to Citizens Based on Wealth, New Report Finds

July 25, 2019

More than half the nation’s estimated 6 million disenfranchised citizens are formerly incarcerated Americans living in states with “modern poll tax” requirements, says report by Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic and the Campaign Legal Center

WASHINGTON – 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, according to a new report released today by Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic.
The report, Can’t Pay, Can’t Vote: A National Survey on the Modern Day Poll Tax, is 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.

Of the nation’s estimated 6 million disenfranchised voters, more than half are formerly incarcerated citizens living in 30 states that impose a “modern poll tax,” the report says. These states require individuals to pay fines and fees related to their criminal convictions before they can regain their right to vote.

Millions Owe Fines and Fees

Many citizens struggle under the restrictive conditions of voting rights restoration because they are unable to pay off their financial obligations in a timely manner, as demonstrated by stories from the report of citizens like Bonnie Raysor of Florida.

Although almost two-thirds of Florida voters supported an amendment to the state constitution last fall to restore voting rights to people with past convictions, the state passed a new law this year that redefines completing “all terms of sentence” to include the payment of legal financial obligations.

As such, Florida remains one of 30 states that can effectively extend the period of disenfranchisement for many years. An estimated 10 million Americans owe more than $50 billion in fines and fees related to criminal convictions.

“Wealth should never be a determining factor in an American’s ability to participate in the electoral process,” said Danielle Lang, co-director of voting rights and redistricting at CLC, which launched RestoreYourVote.org, so people in all 50 states can learn about the path to rights restoration.

“But for far too many individuals, access to the ballot is determined by their ability to pay – a modern day poll tax,” she said. “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.”

Jim Crow Relics

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.

“When millions of people can’t vote in an election because they can’t pay, that election doesn’t deserve to be called fair and free,” said Professor Aderson Francois, who directs Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic. “And when a country tolerates this level of disenfranchisement, it doesn’t deserve to be called democratic.”

According to the new 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.

For more on state-by-state voting restoration policies, including recent legal developments, see the full report.