Discretionary Disenfranchisement: The Case of Legal Financial Obligations


Black applicants are 26 percentage points more likely to be denied the restoration of their voting rights due to criminal debt than non-black applicants.

States have the autonomy to strip convicted defendants of their voting rights and determine how and if they may be restored. Although most states restore voting rights at the end of prison, probation, or parole, nine conditions the restoration of voting rights on the payment of monetary sanctions. Without exception for indigency, the authors call this practice a poll tax, which may be unconstitutional. This study compiles court records, corrections data, and administrative voting rights decisions to identify the type, burden, and disparate impact of criminal debt in Alabama and Tennessee. In addition, the study found that ex-felons who are Black and used a public defender– a proxy for their ability to pay– are likely to remain disenfranchised after completing their sentence.

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Key Findings:

  • In Alabama, a person can only receive a Certificate of Eligibility to Vote if they meet the following criteria: completion of their entire sentence; have no pending felony charges; and have paid all fines, court costs, fees, and victim restitution ordered by the sentencing court.
  • Applicants who used a public defender are 15 percentage points more likely to be denied restoration of their voting rights due to criminal debt than an applicant who hired an attorney.
  • The median amount of legal financial obligations assessed to discharged felons in Alabama is $3,956.
  • 57 percent of an individual’s total criminal debt stems from court fees in Alabama.
  • Docket, public defender and District Attorney’s Collection fees assessed in Alabama make up about 70 percent of all fees assessed. 
  • 82.3 percent of public defense users had a balance, compared to 67.1 percent of those who retain counsel. 
  • In Tennessee, Black defendants are more likely to be ineligible to restore their voting rights due to outstanding child support.
Marc Meredith and Michael Morse
The Journal of Legal Studies