Forty-eight-year-old Treva Thompson won’t be voting today. It’s not that she’s turned off by the choice of candidates. It’s that she isn’t allowed to cast a ballot, the Washington Post reports. She owes $8,000 in fines and fees, plus more than $30,000 in victim restitution related to her felony theft conviction in 2005. She’d have to pay it all off before starting the process to have her voting rights restored. A herculean task, she explains, because she often doesn’t “even have money to get gas to go look for a job.” Speaking for individuals with criminal histories and debt, Thompson says: “We shouldn’t lose our rights as if we’re nothing.” Thompson is the lead plaintiff in a case aimed at preventing Alabama from “barring any ex-offenders from voting on the basis of their past felony convictions — or their inability to pay ‘any legal financial obligations’ as a result of their incarceration.” Alabama is one of 30 states that restrict the voting rights of those who owe debts from their involvement in the criminal justice system. An estimated 10 million Americans owe $50 billion in such debt.
Since 2010, 48 states have increased criminal and court fees. In most states, individuals convicted of traffic offenses, misdemeanors and felonies can be charged for government services that used to be free. The resulting debt impedes the ability of people with criminal convictions to reintegrate into society after incarceration, and subjects them to further sanctions such as civil judgments, liens, wage garnishment and tax interception. Withholding voting rights because of debt tells those with a criminal history: You don’t have a say. It means that, after having otherwise paid their debt to society, individuals with previous convictions are cut off from civic engagement. And when regaining this right is tied to paying the frequently onerous debt that accompanies a conviction, voting restrictions hit low-income places and communities of color hardest.