(CN) – As more states aim to tackle criminal justice reform, voting rights advocates contend the legal financial obligations of former felons continue to deprive them of the right to cast a ballot.
Thirty states still deny voting rights to felons who cannot pay restitution, fines and court fees, according to a study released Thursday by the Campaign Legal Center and the Civil Rights Clinic at Georgetown Law School. Due to disparities in the criminal justice system, the study argues people of color are disproportionately affected by these laws – in effect, a modern-day “poll tax.”
“If we are going to say that voting is a right, why should money ever come into the equation?” said Aderson Francois, a professor at Georgetown and director of the Civil Rights Clinic. “We don’t say you have to pay for freedom of speech. We don’t say you have to pay for freedom of religion … But somehow voting is different.”
The continued resistance to enfranchising the millions of people convicted of felonies is no more apparent than in Florida.
In November, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment that gave most felons the right to vote. But in its last session, the Republican-led Legislature passed a bill that conditions that right on felons paying all restitution, fines and fees related to their sentences.
After Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed the law in June, a group of felons represented by the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit.
One of the plaintiffs is Karen Leicht, a 62-year-old paralegal and self-described “cat lady.” Leicht served 28 months in prison for conspiracy to commit insurance fraud and completed her sentence in 2016. But the Miami resident still has not registered to vote, because she owes $59 million in restitution.
“You think I can ever pay that?” Leicht told a state Senate panel this spring. “I’ll never vote in this state again.”
Criminal justice advocates say the law harkens back to discriminatory measures employed by southern states in the Jim Crow Era. The complaint, filed in Gainesville federal court, alleges the law violates the 14th and 24th Amendments.
“It creates two classes of returning citizens: those who are wealthy enough to vote and those who cannot afford to,” the complaint states. “This disenfranchisement will be borne disproportionately by low-income individuals and racial minorities, due to longstanding and well-documented racial gaps in poverty and employment.”
The Campaign Legal Center joined the ACLU, League of Women Voters and NAACP in filing the suit.
DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the governor defended the law after it passed the Legislature
“The idea that paying restitution to someone is the equivalent to a tax is totally wrong,” he told the Tampa Bay Times in May. “The only reason you’re paying restitution is because you were convicted of a felony.”
The state still has not come up with a system of checking and enforcing the financial obligation provisions. The Florida Secretary of State Office did not respond to questions about how the state plans to check and enforce the financial obligations of potential voters.
The law does have a provision that would allow a judge to waive financial penalties or convert to community service hours.
In the report released Thursday, advocates stressed the racial disparities of felon disenfranchisement.
Prior to the passage of Amendment 4, one in five African-Americans could not register to vote in Florida due to a felony conviction. In the first three months since Amendment 4 took effect in January, more than 2,000 formerly incarcerated Floridians registered to vote. Approximately 44% of them were black, the report states.
Florida’s financial obligation requirements follow laws passed in other states in recent years. Eight states explicitly require ex-felons to pay restitution and fees before registering to vote, including Alabama.
In 2016, the Alabama Secretary of State sent Alfonzo Tucker Jr. a letter notifying him of his disqualification from voting due to $1,515 in fines. After paying $1,511, Tucker applied for his voting rights and the state informed him he still owed four dollars plus a $135 late fee.
Tucker, who lives in Tuscaloosa, said this maze of bureaucracy prevents many people from registering to vote.
“People are hesitant to come in [to register to vote], because the state says they owe all this restitution, fines and fees,” he said.
Tucker blames the Republicans who control the state government.
“They were going down the voting rolls and taking people off,” he said, pointing to letters similar to his received by his friends and family, including his son who does not have a criminal record. “It just shows what the civil rights groups say is true and right in Alabama, because they were preventing black people from voting here.”
In addition to the Florida lawsuit, the Campaign Legal Center joined similar litigation in Alabama in 2016.