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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.

Legislators Who Block Medicaid Expansion Are Stiffing Veterans Out of Health Care

** This article by LeeAnn Hall  first appeared in Huffington Post **

r-VETERANS croppedThe scandal over long wait times for veterans in the Department of Veterans Affairs health system has grabbed a lot of headlines and elicited a lot of righteous anger – as it should. America’s veterans deserve so much better.

But as Ezra Klein pointed out in a piece in Vox, there’s another health care scandal that also deserves its share of righteous anger, and it also has a big impact on veterans with health care needs: the self-destructive refusal of lawmakers in 20-plus states to accept federal funds to expand their Medicaid programs.

Klein catalogued “24 health-care scandals that critics of the VA should also be furious about” (that is, the 24 states that have rejected the Medicaid expansion). Thanks to lawmakers’ kneejerk opposition to expanding health coverage in those states, there are huge numbers of uninsured veterans who should be eligible for coverage, but aren’t: 41,200 veterans in Florida, 24,900 in Georgia, 48,900 in Texas… and the list goes on.

All in all, about 250,000 uninsured veterans are getting stiffed out of eligibility for health coverage by lawmakers who have blocked Medicaid expansion, according to Pew’s Stateline. As it turns out, those lawmakers are also stiffing their own states out of economy-boosting jobs – health care jobs that are overwhelmingly good-paying jobs. Medicaid expansion would create thousands more of these jobs.

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Main Street Alliance Joins Small Business Majority on Amici Brief Opposing Lawsuit Against Health Reform in VA Court

This is a cross-post from the Main Street Alliance, a NWFCO-sponsored program that works with small business owners to bring their voices into important policy debates.

Today, the Main Street Alliance joined Small Business Majority in filing a friend of the court brief in U.S. district court in Virginia. The brief registers small business opposition to the lawsuit filed by the state Attorney General in Virginia attempting to repeal key provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Virginia MSA leader Tammy Rostov joined SBM CEO John Arensmeyer and attorney Joseph Sandler on a press call to discuss the brief. Read more