Texas' System For Restoring Voting Rights For Ex-Felons Is Akin To A 'Poll Tax,' Study Says

Jul 25, 2019

A new study says Texas' system of levying fines and fees to restore formerly incarcerated people's voting rights prevented nearly 333,000 people from voting in 2016.

Texas is among 20 states that require former felons to pay fines and fees tied to the completion of their parole or probation before restoring their right to vote, according to the new report released today by Campaign Legal Center and Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic.

Voting rights advocates say these practices can deny people the right to vote based on their wealth and are a "modern poll tax."

“The practice of tying the right to vote or the ability to vote to one’s ability to pay is part of a long and ugly historically pattern,” said Aderson Francois, a professor and the director of the Civil Rights Clinic at Georgetown Law.

According to the study, nearly 6 million people are denied the right to vote in the United States “due to a past conviction, and, for many of those individuals, the ability to vote is contingent upon their ability to pay an increasing number of fines, fees, court costs, and restitution.”

In Texas, researchers found, 327,665 formerly incarcerated people couldn't vote in the 2016 election, because they couldn't pay legal debt required to complete parole, probation or a combination of the two.

Eight states explicitly require formerly convicted individuals pay fines and fees before they get their voting rights back. In Texas, and 19 other states, former felons have to complete parole or probation, which could mean paying a fine.

Danielle Lang, the co-director of Voting Rights & Redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center, says that means the ability to vote is often tied to income.

“While this system looks wealth-neutral on its face it actually has a very discriminatory impact on the poor and on black and brown people in this country,” said Danielle Lang, the co-director of Voting Rights & Redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center.

Advocates say that the entanglement of a monetized criminal justice system and the right vote has created a barrier to voting for some.

"It fundamentally raises the question whether or not we have the right to call ourselves a true democracy when we turn around the use so many tools to disenfranchise so many people based purely on the ability to afford to pay before they can vote,” Francois said.