opiniongraphic

Julia Nall // Former Design Editor

In five Southern states, including Arkansas, felons who have served their time may still be ineligible to vote due to unpaid court fines and fees. These payments can be incurred for numerous reasons and may be entirely unrelated to a felon’s initial guilty verdict.

In Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee, individuals must finish their time in prison, on parole, and on probation, then pay all fines associated with their time in court to see their voting rights restored. Similarly, in Connecticut, Georgia and Washington, voting rights are restored after some charges are paid to restore their voting rights after completing any other sentences. States with such laws allow felons’ right to vote to hinge on their wealth, imposing a modern-day poll tax.

It is not a crime to be impoverished or unable to pay thousands of dollars at once, so states should stop harassing freemen who’ve served their time and reinstate their rights.

In 1964, Congress ratified the 24th Amendment, which prohibits the state or federal government from imposing any poll or other form of tax to vote.

After the 1937 U.S. Supreme Court case Breedlove v. Suttles, poll taxes were ruled constitutional because they applied to everyone and were not based on race—prohibited by the 15th Amendment—or gender—prohibited by the 19th Amendment.

Southern states had frequently sought to prevent African Americans from voting, and this was no different. Because of this new pay-to-vote system, Congress adopted the 24th Amendment to “eliminate an economic instrument that was used to limit voter participation,” according to Brian Smentkowski, associate professor of political science at Queens University. The clear message: voting is not linked to wealth, race, or gender.

The Constitution now has three amendments that speak directly to protecting voting rights. The implied hint one should recognize is that it is a fundamental right.

More than 3 million people who had served their sentences in full remained disenfranchised in 2016, according to the American Bar Association. Simply put, over 3 million American citizens could not vote due to their financial means.

There is no disagreement that voting is a fundamental right; instead, the discord exists regarding who, if any, should a state bar from exercising this fundamental right.

Our founding fathers did not recognize each individual to have the right to vote, but those were certainly different times. However, the principle remains: they recognized that one of American society's fundamental components rests in the people’s freedom to choose their government.

James Madison, primary author of the Constitution, designed our system to vote for both chambers of Congress and the president. Laws require votes in Congress and the Senate must vote on presidential appointees. Is it not clear that our system operates via voting? Somehow, states still wrestle with this concept.

It is reasonable to permanently restrict some felons’ rights such as their ability to fly or purchase a firearm. Why is that? Because their past actions have shown they are not trustworthy in those respects, and the costs outweigh the benefits. Society does not benefit from a felon flying economy or buying a 9 mm pistol.

However, we do benefit when there is a broader consensus on who should lead our government. The mere suggestion of barring a particular group from voting betrays nothing but prejudice toward that group. The only reason conducive to permanently revoking an individual’s right to vote might be voter fraud. Fees and fines do not constitute the loss of a fundamental right.

When a felon is released, what is the purpose of stapling a mandated fine against him that prevents him from voting? There is no correlation between his fine and his vote; instead, this attempts to undermine the fundamental right to vote.

Florida voters passed a bill to allow felons to vote after completing their sentence, minus sexual offenders and murderers. Yet, their legislators amended the bill to terminate a sentence only after payment for all fines and fees.

Take Steve Phalen, a Florida resident, sentenced in 2005 for arson and reckless public endangerment while under the influence of antidepressants and alcohol. He served his time in the penitentiary as a result of his serious offenses and has since been released. However, even though he has “paid about ninety thousand dollars in restitution and insurance expenses,” he still has to fork over “more than a hundred thousand dollars in civil liens” to regain his right to vote, according to Daniel Gross, contributor for the New Yorker.

In other words, some American citizens must complete their jail time only to be financially bled dry before they can exercise their right to vote again.

When our state government behaves similarly to Florida in this respect, it is only because it also creates laws based on inane principles.

Our system of governance should intend to afford each citizen, who is at least 18, the opportunity to vote, as its function is dependent upon participation from its subsequent citizens. It should be only in the gravest circumstances that we revoke that right.

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