The Legacy of Poll Taxes and Disenfranchisement

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The 24th amendment, ratified in 1964, abolished the poll tax. Unfortunately, over the last 50 years, a policy of another name but similar impact has taken its place. The disenfranchisement policies of 22 states, which are widely considered to be unconstitutional, have continued the American tradition of an exclusionary electorate.

It’s a well-known fact that those living in poverty have tougher lives than those who know when and where their next meal is coming from. No one would argue the opposite. However, a point of contention that needn’t be is the unconstitutionality of linking disenfranchisement to fines and restitution. This practice in almost half of the United States is an attack on our democracy, and it disproportionately affects poor people. Here’s how:

The 14th amendment states the right to vote shall not be “in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime.” Various states have taken advantage of this language in order to disenfranchise millions of citizens for violent and nonviolent crimes alike, even after citizens have served their sentences and returned to society. While states including New Jersey and Florida are being faced with legislation, court rulings, and impending ballot measures to reform their systems, few are approaching the issue from a tested position. That tested position would be centering the illegality of poll taxes as a means of removing citizens from the electorate, for in many instances money is keeping former felons from performing their civic duty at the ballot box.

In fact, of the 22 states that disenfranchise felons while incarcerated, and while on parole and/or probation, 9 of these states also withhold voting rights until any fines and restitution are paid. This is essentially requiring a payment in order to reach the ballot box. Like all aspects of American domestic and state policy, it disproportionately affects the poor and working class. How do we know this? Half of all disenfranchised individuals, meaning 3 million of the approximately 6 million Americans that cannot take place in this key democratic process at the state, local, or federal level, cannot vote because they are unable to pay back restitution and fees.What’s more, experts have found that citizens who are poor, Black, or both are more likely to lose their right to vote. 7.4% of adult African-Americans cannot vote, compared to 1.8% of everyone else.

What does this say about our democracy that a lack of money can remove citizens from the electorate? Passage of the 24th amendment was a long and hard-fought victory that required a significant fraction of our society to recognize that tradition, the way things had been carried out before, was wrong. We must come together and say the same regarding disenfranchisement tied to fines. The constitutionality of disenfranchisement in general has always been up in the air, but our 21st century poll taxes are irrefutably illegal. This is where we should start with returning voting rights to the 6 million forgotten Americans.

 

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