Want to Vote? Pay Up.
Betty Riddle was 17 when she was first convicted of a felony, for clubbing another woman in the face during a fight. “Assault with a deadly weapon,” she told me recently. “I was adjudicated as an adult.”
Riddle spent most of her life in and out of prison, mostly for drug possession and passing bad checks. A judge eventually declared her a danger to society as a repeat offender. “The last time I went in was 2000,” she said. “They habitualized me and gave me 10 years.”
When she got out, Riddle was determined to stay away from drugs. She got a low-paying but gratifying job in the Tampa public defender’s office as a communications assistant, occasional paralegal, and unofficial liaison between the office and the community. She wanted to have a positive impact on society.
So in 2018, when Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum that allowed convicted felons to vote, Riddle, 62, was thrilled. “I haven’t voted in about 40-some years,” Riddle said recently. “When they passed it, it was a moment of—oh God, I couldn’t imagine to tell you what it was like.”
The joy was short-lived. In that same election, voters chose Ron DeSantis, a far-right Republican, as Florida’s new governor. Within months of being sworn in, he signed SB 7066, a law requiring former felons to pay outstanding, court-ordered fees, fines, or victim restitution to the state before they can vote. In doing so, analysts say, DeSantis instantly disqualified some 1.4 million voters—including Riddle.
“I found out that I owe, like, $1,800,” she said. Some of those costs were linked to court orders she didn’t know about or couldn’t remember; others, having fallen delinquent, had been sent to collection agencies who never contacted her. The information “just killed me,” she said, arguing that it’s unfair that court fees, some of them older than her grandchildren, should keep her from full citizenship.
SB 7066 made national headlines and prompted a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union; last week, a judge temporarily blocked the law. But Florida isn’t alone in requiring former felons to settle their debts if they want to vote. At least 30 states, from California to Mississippi, make paying court-ordered costs either a direct requirement for voting, an indirect one, or list it as a condition of receiving clemency, which would restore their access to the ballot box.
Proponents of these laws argue that lawbreakers should have to complete their court-ordered punishment—including financial penalties—before they can vote. But critics say the laws are just modern incarnations of poll taxes, designed to suppress the African American vote.
Amendment 4 was drafted to erase a Jim Crow-era law embedded in the state constitution, and passed with 64 percent of the vote. Despite that overwhelming support, the Republican-controlled legislature passed SB 7066 and DeSantis, in June, signed it. The governor and his allies argued that the law merely clarified ambiguous language in the amendment, which called for restoring former felons’ voting rights “after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” SB 7066 specifies that “all terms” includes financial obligations.
But several studies released this year point out that SB 7066 and similar laws in other states suppress millions of votes—enough to potentially swing the outcome of a national election.
“Nearly six million individuals are denied the right to vote in the United States” due to a past conviction and an inability to pay a rising number of fines, fees, court costs, and restitution, according to the Civil Rights Clinic at Georgetown University School of Law. The Campaign Legal Center calls the practice “a modern poll tax as a precondition of voting” that falls disproportionately on the poor and people of color.
“It’s Disenfranchisement 101,” according to Carol Anderson, an Emory University historian and author of One Person, No Vote. She said these laws reflect an old political calculus, found mostly on the right: Stay in power by narrowing the electorate, and block African Americans and the poor from voting by any means necessary.
During the Jim Crow era, “the poll tax was about poverty,” she said. The modern-day laws tied to court cost are no different, she said: “To make it sound rational, they say, ‘Well, they just have to pay their court fines and fees—that’s all.’ But with the poll tax, they said, ‘They have to pay because democracy is expensive. Elections are expensive.’”
But DeSantis rejects this comparison, arguing that the fees and fines are part of an offender’s punishment. “The idea that paying restitution to someone is 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.”
Laws connecting payments to voting rights dates back to the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. Whites in former slave states saw freed African Americans flex their new political muscle at the ballot box, sending scores of black representatives to state legislatures across the South, as well as to Congress. Alarmed at the threat, whites squelched the nascent political movement by enacting laws making voting contingent on proof of wealth, through poll taxes and property ownership.
Many of those laws remain on the books today. Eight states, including Alabama, Arkansas, and Florida, have laws explicitly requiring ex-offenders to pay all fines and fees known as Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs). Twenty states, including Minnesota and California, require settlement of outstanding LFOs as a term of completing probation and parole. In Alabama, besides paying LFOs, ex-felons have to fill out paperwork: a certificate of eligibility to register to vote. In Tennessee, they have to prove they’re current in child support payments.
Those financial requirements “fall
particularly hard on poor people,” of all races, said Aderson Francois, director of the Civil Rights Clinic. But restoring voting rights only after criminal penalties are paid, he adds, “harms minorities in particular” because they are “overly represented in the criminal justice system, and overly represented in terms of poor people.”
These laws have led to an estimated 10 million people who “owe more than $50 billion in fines and fees related to criminal convictions,” according to the CRC’s report. And some jurisdictions see them as a way to fill state or municipal budget holes. “These LFOs include a variety of fines and fees assessed to generate revenue for various judicial and law enforcement expenses,” the report states, “but also debts for medical care incurred during incarceration and fees and legal costs imposed specifically on indigent defendants who are represented by public defenders.”
The Campaign Legal Center report found ex-offenders “owed an average of $8,195 in restitution alone,” a figure that doesn’t even calculate fines or fees, according to the report. “This returning population,” the report states, “is ill-equipped to pay these debts.” Ex-offenders struggle to find steady work because of their records. When they do land jobs, more often than not they don’t pay well enough to eliminate the debt.
This long-standing, racially motivated disenfranchisement “fundamentally calls into question whether or not we have the right to call ourselves a true democracy,” Francois said. Micha Kubic, executive director of the ACLU, noted that Amendment 4 “was the biggest expansion of the franchise since the 1970s. We’re also talking about large numbers of white voters who will be stopped for registering as well. I think it is instead an attack on democracy itself, an attack on the voters’ ability to make decisions for the state.”
Betty Riddle knows many people with felony convictions who, if SB 6077 is upheld by the courts, can’t afford the fines “so they’re just not gonna a vote and they’re just discouraged.” But not her. “It was unjust,” she said, “and I’m going to fight to the end.”
Joseph Williams is a senior news editor at US News & World Report and a contributor to the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. He is based in Washington, DC.
Co-published with The New Republic.