Much of our country’s political upheaval is based on an often correct belief that our government fails to work for anyone but the rich and powerful. The criminal justice system is part of that problem. It has found many ways to criminalize the lack of wealth or a six figure income—from local police smacking people with hefty fines and fees for petty violations, as a way to raise money, to criminal penalties that multiply exponentially when a person is unable to pay those silly fines and fees. One side consequence of this messed up system is how it impacts voting rights, further shifting the power to those that have from those who struggle to make ends meet. There are a staggering number of people, disproportionately people of color, who are not able to vote because of unpaid fines and fees and who are unlikely to ever be able to vote again unless the rules change. Thus, in essence, the system is rigged to keep millions of regular people—often hard-working people—from voting.
According to the Washington Post, there are thirty states in which people who owe debts from their involvement in the criminal justice system are not allowed to vote. That’s an estimated 10 million Americans, owing $50 billion in criminal fines and fees. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay area explains how minor fines for some mild offense, like not having a working tail light, can stack up and quickly become criminal fines that are unrealistic for a poor person to pay. For instance, if a driver gets a $100 ticket, automatic state and county fees are tacked on, bumping it up to $490. If the driver misses the deadline to pay, the fine jumps again, to $815. And so on. Then the driver loses his or her license, making the prospect of keeping a job and paying off the outrageous fines and fees even more challenging. In many parts of our country, that person cannot vote until the fines and fees are paid.
The State of Alabama illustrates how connecting unpaid fines and fees to voting rights impacts voting demographics. In Alabama, more than a quarter of a million voters, or 7.62% of the state’s voting-age population, is barred from voting because they have a past felony conviction. Even though African Americans make up only 26.8% of the state population, more than half the people barred from voting are black. A new state law was passed to reinstate voting rights to people convicted of most felonies, but only after they paid any remaining court fines and fees. Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, summarized the resulting policy: “Rich people can buy the right to vote. Poor people can’t.”
Our criminal justice is stacked against people of color at every stage of the process: police stops, arrests, charges, plea deals, and sentencing. Thus, it is no surprise that these voting restrictions are hitting minority communities the hardest. It is also no coincidence that low-income people and communities of color tend to be the ones hit hardest by our government’s backward economic and social (in)justice policies. Our country has a lot of political issues that particularly affect working class people, from taxes, to health care accessibility, to the quality of public services. Systematically excluding millions of those people from voting ensures that their voices are never heard so that only the powerful and connected will continue to rule in ways that enrich themselves. This is not how democracy is supposed to work. Abraham Lincoln spoke of, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” We are a far cry from that.