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Individuals with prior felony convictions often must complete all terms of their sentence before they regain voter eligibility. Many jurisdictions include legal-financial obligations (LFOs) — fines, fees, and/or restitution stemming from convictions — in the terms of the sentence. Twenty-eight states, governing over 182 million Americans, either directly or indirectly tie LFO repayment to voting privileges, a practice we call felony financial disenfranchisement.

Proponents of felony financial disenfranchisement posit that returning citizens must satisfy the financial obligations stemming from convictions to restore themselves as community equals. Moralism aside, others claim low rates of electoral participation among those with felony convictions imply such disenfranchisement is inconsequential.

In this Article, we challenge both of these claims. To do so, we draw upon new empirical and contextual evidence from Florida, which disenfranchises more returning citizens than any other state. We rely on data and natural experiments from a non-partisan, non-profit advocacy group that we launched called Free Our Vote.

The Article illustrates how felony financial disenfranchisement creates uncertainty around voter eligibility, which likely deters many otherwise qualified voters with felony records from participating. We also measure, for the first time, the direct impact of felony financial disenfranchisement on voter participation, using a debt relief program implemented by Free Our Vote. Specifically, we compare electoral participation between registered voters whose LFOs were eliminated by Free Our Vote against virtually identical debtors who did not benefit from our program. We find our debt relief program increased voter turnout by approximately 26% among this group during the 2020 election.

The contextual and empirical evidence we present unequivocally demonstrates that narratives in favor of felony financial disenfranchisement are misguided. Failure to pay criminal court debt typically arises from bureaucratic complications and opacity as well as indigency. Ethics-oriented arguments thus grossly misconstrue the challenges returning citizens face. Likewise, the purported benefits of induced criminal court revenue from LFOs are overstated. Given the countervailing costs tied to criminal debt, and its disparate impact on indigent and Black defendants, we conclude that felony financial disenfranchisement is on balance a socially harmful policy that should be eliminated.

Publication Citation

Vanderbilt Law Review, Forthcoming.