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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.

To Fight Racism, Protect Voting Rights

The cold-blooded murder of nine people at a Charleston church made it impossible to deny the persistence of racism across the nation. So do the symbols of support for slavery and segregation that remain emblazoned on public property throughout the South, and scattered among some Northern states as well.

What will it take to bring real racial justice to our country? For starters, protecting the right to vote.

A century after the end of the Civil War, Southern segregation thrived because of lynch laws, poll taxes, and other institutional restrictions on African Americans. One of the great achievements that finally broke the back of Jim Crow was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enshrined the right to vote in federal statute for the first time.

The Voting Rights Act mandated federal review of any new voting rules in 15 states, most of them in the South, with histories of discrimination at the polls. Two years ago, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision on Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted the enforcement tools of the federal voting law.

The right to vote is still the law of the land — in principle — but the Supreme Court ruling turned the protection of those rights over to state and local authorities.

Since the ruling, states such as Arizona and Kansas have passed restrictive voter ID laws. And North Carolina ended early voting and same-day registration.

They’re far from alone, and this voter suppression isn’t limited to the states that joined the Confederacy. But I can’t help wondering how jurisdictions that still wrap themselves in the rebel flag can be counted on to safeguard fair voting rights.

To protect against discrimination, Congress must pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act. The bill would repair the damage the Supreme Court inflicted two years ago on voter protections.

The Senate version, introduced by Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, would provide federal observers where necessary. It would also require federal permission for states to change their voting laws, and it mandates bilingual voting materials where appropriate.

You’d think that following a tragedy like the one that struck the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a bill protecting voting rights would sail through Congress. Sadly, you’d be wrong.

What are the stonewalling legislators so worried about? The answer is clear: The black vote threatens them.

Black voters accounted for 12 percent of the national electorate in the 2014 elections, up from 11 percent in 2010 but below the significant 13 percent in 2012. That year — when President Barack Obama was running for reelection — black turnout eclipsed white turnout by about 2 points.

In some Southern states, such as North Carolina, African-American voters make up over 20 percent of the electorate. Black voter turnout in that state has increased dramatically in the last 15 years.

With the 2016 election right around the corner, maybe that’s something Southern Republicans are worried about. After all, they’ve already denied residents of most Southern states access to Medicaid expansion and a living wage. Now they’re threatening their voting rights too.

By all means, take down those Confederate flags. Move the monuments to museums. But more importantly, begin addressing the deeper issues those symbols represent — both in the South and throughout the country. Legislators must raise a flag guaranteeing the right to vote for everyone.