Discretionary Disenfranchisement: The Case of Legal Financial Obligations


44 percent of people who were linked to an Alacourt record and applied to the Board of Pardons and Paroles to gain documentation to restore their voting rights were denied because of their court debt. Black people who applied to restore their right to vote are 26 percentage points more likely to be denied because of unpaid fines and fees than non-Black applicants. 

This paper discusses how fines and fees prevent ex-felons in Alabama from restoring their right to vote, distinguishing between gaining the right to vote and the struggles of restoring one’s right to vote after disenfranchisement. The research suggests that Black ex-felons and those who are poor are disproportionately harmed by Alabama’s voting laws. The state of this issue in Tennessee is reviewed to provide additional context. 

You can read the full text of the paper here

Key findings

  • The median amount of fines and fees imposed upon people with discharged felony convictions is $3,956, most of which are fees. The docket fee, the fee for using a public defender, and the district attorney’s 30 percent surcharge on court debt after 90 days, make up about 70 percent of all fees that are assessed.  
  • Tennessee requires a person to be current on child support in addition to other court fines, fees, and costs before they can regain the right to vote.  
  • 82.3 percent of people who used a public defender have unpaid court debt versus 67.1 percent of people who retain private counsel.
Marc Meredith, University of Pennsylvania, Michael Morse, Yale Law School
The University of Chicago