Fighting the new forms of the poll tax

The history of suppressing the vote in the US is a long one. Initially these measures were aimed at preventing poor people from voting (since slaves could not vote anyway) but after emancipation, the Civil War, and the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 that said simply “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”, the ruling class tried to find other ways to prevent poor people and now blacks from voting. Women were of course barred from voting in the US until 1920.

The proxy measures that were introduced that did not mention race or income but had the effect of making both salient. One is the poll tax, which initially meant that you had to pay a fee to register to vote. Those poll taxes were ruled unconstitutional but that did not stop the efforts. Other barriers were thrown up and the term poll tax now applies to any measure that imposes some financial burden on the person in order to be able to vote. Republican dominated states keep inventing news finding way to impose onerous restrictions on voting under the guise of preventing election fraud when such frauds are almost non-existent.

One tactic is to strip felons of the right to vote even after they had served their time. This was the case in Florida where a lifetime ban on voting was in effect until in 2018 when 65% of the people voted to restore voting rights to all felons after they had completed their time, except for those who had committed rape or murder.

So what did the Republicans in Florida do? They passed a law that said that these ex-felons could not vote until they had paid all their fees and fines. Since many of these ex-felons are poor and the US penal system racks up all manner of fees and fines on prisoners, this was another form of using a poll tax for disenfranchisement. That new law was challenged and is currently in the courts. But rather than wait for the case to work its way through the slow legal system, some organizations are raising money to pay off all the money due from all the ex-felons.

A group founded by NBA superstar LeBron James and other Black athletes and entertainers is stepping into the fight to register Florida voters with felony records, saying it will help pay court debts and fees so they can cast ballots in the November presidential election.

More Than A Vote, a group established by James and others in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, on Friday said it will donate $100,000 to help pay outstanding court debts of ex-felons so they can register to vote. The money will go to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which in 2018 successfully pushed to a constitutional amendment that lifted Florida’s lifetime voting ban on people with felony convictions. After the amendment passed, the Republican-led state Legislature earlier this year raised the bar for felons to vote, passing a law that is being challenged in federal court.

The coalition already has raised more than $1.5 million for its fees-and-fines fund, but the partnership with More Than A Vote is expected to bring attention and awareness to the effort.

The shameless way that Republicans so blatantly try to suppress the vote of poor and minority people is a disgrace. What I hope is that these measures will galvanize even those who are normally apathetic when it comes to voting to go out and vote this time and throw these people out.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … some organizations are raising money to pay off all the money due from all the ex-felons. … to help pay outstanding court debts of ex-felons …

    I hope this was thought through strategically, as to, e.g., whether that $100K might better have gone directly to the legal fight against the legislature’s chicanery (though perhaps with fewer tax advantages to James & co-donors?).

    And I also have to wonder: do the penalties faced by these ex-inmates (we can’t technically call them ex-felons unless courts overturn their convictions) include restitution or other fines beyond “court costs”?

  2. says

    Pierce, there is also pay-to-stay where the state charges inmates various costs for their incarceration. It’s just unusual to end up thousands of dollars in debt just for being imprisoned.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Tabby Lavalamp @ # 2 -- Uh, did you omit a “not” in that second sentence?

  4. says

    There is a great big “oops” at the heart of the new poll tax. The premise is that it’s hard for the prospective voter to figure out how much money they owe, yet the polling place is going to have to be able to tell exactly that in order to permit or deny their vote. You can tell that the whole thing is a set-up.

    Most states have been shameless in how they allow their judicial system to load on fees and charges of all sorts. There is no way to contest the fees, and the local magistrate can just run up a tab for you. Then you’re on the hook for it.

  5. says

    Pierce, yup. Please replace “just” with “not” in that sentence. Also, I should point out that the debt can run up to the tens of thousands of dollars.

  6. says

    Curiously, a businessman can tank a company and then just declare bankruptcy and walk away. Nobody says he can’t vote until all creditors have been paid. Funny how that works.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *