Editors’ Note: Excerpted from a New York Times editorial, August 10, 2019.
Coral Nichols will be eligible to vote when she’s 190. That’s assuming the 40-year-old Floridian — who served five years in prison for fraud and embezzlement, followed by nearly 10 years on probation — is able to keep up with her $100 monthly restitution payments.
Jermaine Miller thought he had fully repaid the $223.80 he owed in restitution for a 2015 robbery and trespass conviction. In fact, he paid $18.20 more than that, but Florida says he still has a balance due of $1.11 because of a 4 percent surcharge on restitution payments. On top of that, Mr. Miller owes $1,221 in court costs and fines, which he doesn’t have the money to pay.
Ms. Nichols and Mr. Miller are two of more than 1.4 million Floridians with criminal records who have spent the last year Ping-Ponging between hope and despair over whether they can exercise their most fundamental constitutional right — the right to vote.
Last November, nearly two-thirds of the state’s voters approved Amendment 4, a ballot initiative that erased Florida’s 150-year ban on voting by people with felony convictions, except for those convicted of murder or sexual offenses. It was one of the nation’s biggest expansions of voting rights in decades. Florida, which was one of just four states that imposed a lifetime voting ban, bars a higher percentage of its citizens from voting than any other state. The state also accounts for more than one in four citizens disenfranchised nationwide.
But Florida’s Republican lawmakers decided Amendment 4 was too much democracy for their taste. In June, after thousands of formerly incarcerated people — including Jermaine Miller — had registered to vote, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law passed on party lines that effectively reinstates the ban for most of them, and for hundreds of thousands more people who had not yet registered.
The law, which took effect July 1, requires people with a felony conviction to pay off all costs, fines, fees and any restitution arising from their conviction before they are eligible to register to vote…. As the lawmakers surely knew when they wrote the law, they would be re-disenfranchising a large number of people who just had their rights restored.
The law, which took effect July 1, requires people with a felony conviction to pay off all costs, fines, fees and any restitution arising from their conviction before they are eligible to register to vote.
As the lawmakers surely knew when they wrote the law, they would be re-disenfranchising a large number of people who just had their rights restored. Only about one in five Floridians with criminal records have fully paid their financial obligations, according to an estimate by an expert in voting and elections at the University of Florida, who analyzed data from 48 of Florida’s 67 counties. (The estimate is included in a brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has joined with several other voting-rights groups in suing the state over the new law.) That number is no surprise: People convicted of crimes are more likely to be poor. Fines and fees can often run into the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, but for many, even a debt of a few hundred dollars is more than they can manage, a problem that’s compounded by the fact that it’s difficult to get a job when you have a criminal record. In other words, the state is telling people they’re too poor to vote.
This once was known as a poll tax, which Southern states like Florida used in the later 19th century and well into the 20th century to keep their newly freed but still impoverished black citizens from voting. Poll taxes were popular because they were effective. By 1940, only 3 percent of black people in Florida were registered to vote. The practice was finally banned in 1964, by the 24th Amendment.
There’s a good argument to be made that laws like Florida’s violate this amendment as well as other constitutional provisions, like the equal protection clause. The bottom line is that a person’s right to vote should not hinge on how much money he or she has.
Florida is a particularly egregious offender on this front, but the problem of disenfranchisement by poverty is widespread. Across the country, 10 million people owe a combined $50 billion in fines and fees related to criminal convictions, and 30 states either expressly or implicitly condition the restoration of the right to vote on payment of those obligations, according to a new report by the Campaign Legal Center and Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic.
Florida Republicans insist that their new law is simply expressing the will of the voters, because the amendment allowed for restoration of voting rights only “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” And the law provides alternatives for people who can’t pay, including community service.
Don’t fall for these arguments. First, it seems clear what voters intended when they came out overwhelmingly in favor of Amendment 4: The purpose of the measure was to reintegrate formerly incarcerated people into society, not to throw up a new hurdle that most of them cannot clear. And alternatives like community service are at the discretion of the courts, which rarely grant them.
Finally, it’s hard to understand how these fines and fees can be considered part of a person’s sentence. When people finish their probation or parole, their fines and fees are usually converted to a civil lien or judgment — meaning they are treated like basically any other debt. Imagine if you weren’t allowed to get your college diploma until you’d paid off your student loans.
The overwhelming majority of Americans see felon disenfranchisement as the cruel, pointless and counterproductive punishment that it is. It serves no purpose other than to prevent millions of Americans from more fully participating in society.
Florida Republicans, like their counterparts in other states and in Washington, D.C., are becoming increasingly comfortable with the perks of minority rule, like the ability to disregard what the majority of voters demand. They appear to know that when you can’t win on your ideas, you win by undermining democracy.