New Report: Disenfranchised by Debt

For Immediate Release
March 8, 2016
Contact: Kathy Mulady
Communications Director
(206) 992-8787

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 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., does 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.

Daley Weekly: Libero Temporarily in the Hot Seat

This might be the Daley Weekly, but I’m no Bill Daley.

I am Libero Della Piana, filling in temporarily on the Daley Weekly.

As Bill pointed out in last week’s entry, I am in the hot seat for the next few weeks as Bill goes for a much-deserved vacation. While I can hardly fill his seat, I hope to keep it warm for him while he’s gone.

I’ll try to identify important (or at least interesting to me) political and economic trends in the country and the world with a wry sense of humor and a skeptic’s eye. Well, maybe not as wry or skeptical, but I can try.

Also, as I am not deep in the swamps of the District of Columbia as Bill is, I will report on Washington from afar and add a little Gotham to my weekly musings. As far as I know there is not as of yet a complaint department here at the Daley Weekly, so please hold your grievances, at least ‘til Bill returns.

–       Libero Della Piana

Benjamin Bradlee, 1921-2014

Ben Bradlee, the seminal editor of the Washington Post, who published the Pentagon Papers, passed away this week at the age of 93. Bradlee received the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year from President Obama.

In the face of White House threats, Bradlee encouraged Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s daring reporting on the Watergate scandal. Bradlee and those two reporters almost certainly helped change the course of U.S. history by at least hastening the exit of President Richard Nixon.

Bradlee’s passing was noted not just for his journalistic work, but also for what he represents. He was an archetypal newsman and editor, the kind seemingly rare in today’s news biz. To the veteran anchors and newsmakers, the principled, hard-nosed newsroom editor, ready to buck the powers-that-be and back his reporters, is going the way of the dodo bird. It is with deep respect and perhaps more than a bit of nostalgia that reporters and pundits bid Bradlee adieu.

Police and Prisons

October 22 was the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality. The annual day of protest took on special importance this year just two months after the high-profile killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Energized and enraged from the #FergusonOctober weekend of action a few weeks ago, activists from Atlanta, to Los Angeles, to Oakland to St. Louis took to the streets to call for justice in Brown’s killing and to say, simply, “Black Lives Matter.”

Dramatic actions to block freeways and city streets drew more press than the Day of Action has probably ever received and generated some dramatic photos.

This is on the heels of the leaking of information from the Grand Jury empanelled in the shooting of Michael Brown. For the first time we learned of police office Darren Wilson’s account of events when his testimony was leaked and reported by the New York Times. Then the autopsy was leaked. Both incidents hinted at an eventual non-indictment for Wilson, an eventuality that heightened tensions in the St. Louis are over last weekend.

Protestors and community residents continue calls for indictment of Wilson or a special prosecutor in the case, and for Department of Justice civil rights charges. The announcement that Missouri Governor Jay Nixon will create an independent commission to look into the case. Tempers remain high.

Giving ICE the cold shoulder

Meanwhile around the country the “detainer” policies of the Department of Homeland Security’s ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) are being rebuffed. ICE has been in the habit of forcing local police to hold immigrant suspects to await deportation by immigration officials – even if they would not otherwise be detained.

But following some high-profile court cases that decided detainer holds were either unconstitutional or not mandatory, more and more municipalities and counties are pulling the plug on the cozy relationship between local cops and ICE.

Riker’s Island, New York City’s main jail, had an infamous ICE office where immigrants awaiting trial could be rerouted straight to deportation. But as of this week, thanks to AJS affiliate Make the Road New York, and other groups, the ICE office at Riker’s Island is closed and hardly a single county in New York still participates in cooperation with the unnecessary and patently unfair practice that was ripping families apart.


The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is a tragedy leaning towards disaster at this point. But after listening to some of the fear mongers in the U.S., I find myself laughing, not crying or cowering in my closet.

Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) thinks the self-styled Islamic State terrorist group in Syria and Iraq will infect themselves with Ebola and make their way to the U.S. to destroy Western Civilization. Never mind that intelligence and scientific experts say the idea is ridiculous, the good Senator has just exposed our Achilles’ heel to the wrongdoers. Sounds like he’s playing for the other team.

Then there is Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) and Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX) who have sounded a false alarm about Mexican and Central American immigrants bringing Ebola over the Southern Border. I have to give Bill Daley credit on this one. Your very own Daley Weekly scooped this story a few weeks ago, predicting that anti-immigrant demagogues would attack refugee children at the border as Ebola spreaders. Of course, influenza kills between 3,000 and 49,000 in the U.S. each year, but we have priorities, right?

While the anti-scientific nonsense is flying on cable news and the halls of Washington, U.S. authorities have essentially contained Ebola after early mistakes and delays plagued Ebola response. As of this writing, one of the two nurses who contracted the disease in Dallas has been ruled Ebola-free, and a small number of others who might have been exposed to Ebola in Dallas have all been given a clean bill of health after 21 days of quarantine.

Now the first case has surfaced in New York, a doctor who recently returned from Africa has been diagnosed with Ebola. Medical officials say they have had the benefit of learning from mistakes in Dallas and are urging residents not to panic.

Airport screenings have begun in U.S. airports as well, and the CDC and White House have so far resisted the pressure to ban flights from West Africa.

Voting Rights

The Supreme Court has had a number of cases this term about laws that threaten voting rights. Ever since their 2013 ruling that gutted the enforcement of the1965 Voting Rights Act, it has been open season on voters in some parts of the country. No Tea Party-controlled legislature worth its salt missed the opportunity to pass a voter ID law, bar student voting, or otherwise try to limit the democratic franchise.

Some of those laws have made their way back to SCOTUS in the last weeks before the midterm elections. In an apparently contradictory flurry of rulings, the Supremes blocked voter-ID law in Wisconsin, blocked early voting in Ohio, and restored same-day voter registration in North Carolina.

Then there was Texas. The Roberts Court upheld the appellate court’s decision that restrictive voting laws in Texas were constitutional despite the fact they had been ruled intentionally discriminatory at trial, called an “unconstitutional poll tax” by the judge, and will disenfranchise an estimated 600,000 voters, largely blacks and Latinos.

The Nov 4, 2014 midterm elections should perhaps get an asterisk next to it:

*Millions barred from voting.


Which reminds us that the midterm election is just a little over a week away and speculation and spin has reached a fever pitch.

A few weeks ago it looked like there might be a chance the Democrats would buck all predictions and trends and hold the Senate. Mr. Daley himself even posited that an Independent Caucus might lead the Senate if neither the Dems nor the GOP can get to a majority on their own.

But the much-lauded FiveThirtyEight blog of Nate Silver gives the Republicans a 63.9 percent chance to win a majority in the Senate.

It might all come down to turn out, but more on that next week.

Minority Dissent: The Voting Rights Act Decision

Cite as: 570 U.S. _____ (2013)
No. 12-96

[June 25, 2013]


The Alliance respectfully dissents from the majority in Tuesday’s Court ruling; and joins the opinion of Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan.

The question before the Court was whether Congress had the authority under the Constitution to reauthorize preclearance for another 25 years. While the Court correctly notes that Congress had the proper authority; we depart from the opinion that requires Congress the duplicative analysis of recalculating the formula.

In 2006, when reauthorization was at issue, Congress had already assembled a legislative record justifying the initial legislation.  As Justice Ginsburg appropriately points out, “Because Congress did not alter the coverage formula, the same jurisdictions previously subject to preclearance continue to be the remedy.” Dissent at 19.

Based from the conclusion of the majority Court’s rationale, the need for enforcement must have magically disappeared.

Reality however, shows otherwise.

Of particular importance, even after 40 years and thousands of discriminatory changes blocked by preclearance, condition in the covered jurisdictions demonstrated that the formula was still justified by “current needs” Id., citing Northwest Austin, 557 U.S.., at 203.

In some ways, things have changed dramatically since the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed.  Voter turnout and registration rates for African Americans and Whites are almost on par in jurisdictions covered by §4, and the tests and devices blocking access to the polls have been forbidden nationwide—all of which the majority notes are due in large part to the success of the Act itself.

While the majority contends that §4 is no longer valid due to changed conditions in those jurisdictions, the formula, specifically, is a large part of what has allowed the success of the Voter Rights Act.


If the formula is irrelevant, one would expect that the rate of successful lawsuits authorized by other parts of the Act would be more or less the same in both covered and non-covered jurisdictions.  Yet, evidence has shown that racial discrimination in voting in fact is “concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance.”  Northwest Austin Municipal Util. Dist. No. One v. Holder, 557 U.S. at 203 (2009).  For example, as the Katz study indicated, jurisdictions covered by the §4 formula account for 56% of successful §2 litigation (since 1982), even though the jurisdictions make up less than 25% of the population.   To Examine the Impact and Effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act: Hearing before the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the House Committee on the Judiciary, 109th Congr., 1st Sess., pp. 964-1124 (2005).


Additionally, one would also expect, if the formula were not representative of current conditions, that the degree of racial polarization would be equivalent in covered and non-covered jurisdictions.  Yet, evidence indicates rates are the highest in covered jurisdictions.  H.R. Rep. No. 109-478, at 34-35.


Alliance for a Just Society joins in the opinion that §4 of the Voter Rights Act itself accounts for changing conditions.  If a state can show it has complied with the Act for 10 years, and has engaged in efforts to eliminate intimidation and harassment of voters, it may bail out.  42 U.S.C. §1973b(a) (2006 ed. and Supp. V).  Had Alabama complied with the Act beginning in 1973, and made efforts towards ending racially discriminative voting practices, this case would never have been presented to this Court.  Instead, Alabama would have escaped subjection to pre-clearance in 1983, like nearly 200 other jurisdictions who have successfully bailed out since the Act was passed.  See Brief for Federal Respondent 54.  Jurisdictions may be added to the preclearance requirement if they violate the 14th or 15th amendment, essentially installing a bail in mechanism.  The concept is simple:  if a state does have racially discriminatory practices in motion with regards to voting access, a state will not be subject to preclearance.


Yet, many covered jurisdictions, including Alabama, have clearly shown they are unable to comply with measures of the Voter Rights Act.  Alabama, specifically, is second only to Mississippi in the highest rates of successful §2 suits between 1982 and 2002 (679 F. 3d, at 897 (Williams, J., dissenting)).  Additionally, multiple cases have occurred even as recently as 2011, in which racial discrimination was at issue.  (See Dillard v. Crenshaw Cty., 640 F. Supp. 1347, 1354-63 (MD Ala. 1986), holding at large election systems in several Alabama counties violated §2, and United States v. McGregor, 824 F. Supp. 2d. 1339, 1344-1348 (MD Ala. 2011) where an FBI investigation found Senators referring to African Americans as Aborigines, and captured their conversations aiming to quash a referendum because it might increase African-American voter turnout).


Moreover, the majority ruling ignores the enormous impact of second generation barriers inherent in so many covered jurisdictions:  racial gerrymandering, and system of at large voting (just as examples).  While there are not direct tests required for voting in covered states, processes diluting the African-American vote have essentially the same effect as overt discrimination.  This is why Congress continued to reauthorize the Voter Rights Act in 1970 for 5 years, in 1975 for 7 years, and in 1982 for 25 years.


§4 of the Voter Rights Act is essential to ensuring that the rest of the Act is complied with.  As the Court had repeatedly recognized, other solutions to racial discrimination in voting access have failed.  The Act was created specifically to address the inadequacy of litigation:  its often prohibitive cost and lengthy procedures yielding untimely results with serious consequences.  Yet, the majority’s legislation will allow states, who have shown they are incapable of complying with the Act, to enact radical racially discriminatory voting practices whose consequences cannot be fixed without additional years of litigation and elections.


The formula of §4 was the method Congress chose for good reason, and not for the court to undermine.  Unfortunately, while recognizing the problem of racial discrimination in voting, the majority refused to enforce a working solution.

The United States failed for over a century to fulfill promises of Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, and it has yet to correct its mistakes.

  Breanne Schuster, Alliance 2013 Policy Intern, helped immensely to write this piece.