Disenfranchised by Debt

Washington D.C. – Poverty isn’t supposed to be a barrier to voting in the United States, at least according to the Constitution.

Yet, more than 50 years after poll taxes were prohibited by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, people with criminal convictions in at least 30 states are still being barred from voting even after serving their sentence because they are too poor to pay their jail fines and fees.

Disenfranchised by Debt is a new report by the Alliance for a Just Society released today at the Debt Nation conference in Washington, D.C. The report analyzes how millions of people, especially people of color, are blocked from voting because they can’t afford their criminal debts. Meanwhile, former offenders with means are able to quickly regain their voting rights – creating a two-tiered system.

A history of racism in the United States and the growing criminalization of poverty means that African Americans particularly, are more likely to be arrested, convicted, to receive harsher penalties, and are then less likely to regain their right to vote.

“Ending criminal disenfranchisement would be the ideal way to prevent the loss of voting rights due to court debt,” said Libero Della Piana, national organizer and racial justice leader with the Alliance for a Just Society. “Poverty should never be a reason for withholding anyone’s right to vote.”

Some of the recommendations in the report include:

  • Limiting interest rates and fees attached to unpaid LFOs.
  • Ensuring that those with misdemeanor convictions have the right and ability to vote while incarcerated.
  • Automatically registering people with conviction records when they become eligible to vote.

LFO debts grow at every stage of the judicial process, including while in jail or prison. Costs can even include laundry expenses, or haircuts. These debts also accrue interest at rates as high as 12 percent – including while the person is incarcerated. Many prisoners leave jail thousands of dollars in debt, with few job opportunities.

“Legal Financial Obligations prevent ex-offenders from rebuilding a productive life,” said Allyson Fredericksen, senior policy analyst and author of the report. “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.”

Most formerly incarcerated people never regain their right to vote.

“Our research shows that while some states explicitly require the repayment of legal debt before voting rights are restored, many other states are more indirect, requiring the completion of probation or parole – with the payment of fees and fines a condition of completing parole,” said Linnea Lassiter, co-author of Disenfranchised by Debt.

In Maryland, voting rights have recently been restored to to 40,000 people statewide completing probation, and starting March 10 will be restored automatically upon their release from prison.

In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe is the only person able to restore voting rights to those with felony convictions, per Virginia’s constitution. He announced last year that “outstanding court costs and fees will no longer prohibit an individual from having his or her rights restored.”

This opens up the opportunity to vote to even more returning citizens, many of them African American.

Virginia Organizing leader Eunice Haigler of Fredericksburg, Va., gives workshops to help former felons regain their voting rights.

“I don’t know if a lot of people know how valuable it is to African Americans to be able to vote,” said Haigler. “Many African Americans don’t have a lot of hope, so to be able to vote and have a say in your community, to make it better, is a whole new world.”

Alliance for a Just Society is a national organization that focuses on social, economic and racial justice issues.

Building Momentum to “Ban the Box” Nationwide

Last week, Oregon’s Gov. Kate Brown signed into law a bill that prohibits questions about prior convictions on initial applications for employment.

This makes Oregon the seventh state in the country to “ban the box” on private employment applications, giving people with records the chance to get to an interview and a fairer shot at employment opportunities. The measure will go into effect in Oregon on January 1, 2016.

Alliance affiliates Oregon Action and Center for Intercultural Organizing were partners in the Fair Shot for All coalition that pushed the “ban the box” proposal forward. The Main Street Alliance of Oregon and its small business leaders also brought their voices to the debate in support of the measure.

The momentum for fair hiring laws is continuing to build: over 100 cities and counties around the country have now passed “ban the box” measures for public or private employment. The issue has appeal across political lines and has brought together coalitions that include civil rights groups, faith communities, labor allies, prison reform groups, and small business leaders.

In addition to this latest win in Oregon, Alliance affiliates from Citizen Action of New York to Virginia Organizing to Main Street Alliance of Florida have been organizing to advance fair hiring policies at the local, state, and national levels.

In Virginia, working with several other groups, Virginia Organizing was the driving force in winning measures to ban the box in 10 local jurisdictions over the past year. They then encouraged Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to issue an executive order banning the box for state jobs; when he did, it made Virginia one of 18 states that have banned the box for public sector jobs.

Virginia Organizing has also weighed in on this issue at the federal level, successfully asking senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine to call on President Barack Obama to issue an executive order banning the criminal history question on federal job applications.

Main Street Alliance of Florida got involved in fair hiring issues earlier this year after business owner members shared stories of their past experiences facing employment discrimination based on a conviction history.

In Daytona Beach, Main Street Alliance members testified before the city commission and met with the mayor and city manager, making a small business and local economy-focused case for fair hiring practices alongside arguments about basic fairness and opportunity. The fair chance hiring initiative, including banning the conviction box on job application forms, passed the Daytona Beach City Commission in early June.

Main Street Alliance and coalition partners in Florida then set their sights on Orlando, co-authoring a letter to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer stating their intent to advance a fair hiring campaign there. Within days, the City of Orlando announced plans to implement a “ban the box” policy by the end of July.

In addition to the boots-on-the-ground work that wins policy change at the local level, Main Street Alliance leaders have used the megaphone of national media to bring a new perspective to the debate about fair hiring and push back on unfounded claims that “banning the box” is bad for business. Main Street Alliance of Florida member Paul Heroux makes the pro-small business, pro-local economy case for fair hiring in this op-ed in The Guardian.

And Main Street Alliance leaders have also joined in the national effort to urge the Obama Administration to ban the box on federal hiring applications.

These ban the box wins from Oregon to Virginia to Florida highlight the power of unusual allies – like job applicants, small business owners, faith allies, and prison reformers – joining together to push for changes that restore economic opportunity, advance racial equity, and build stronger local economies.

That joining together and the power it builds don’t magically appear out of thin air. They take organizing – dedicated, determined, don’t-take-no-for-an-answer organizing. That’s what Alliance affiliates are about.