Law Amounts To Illegal Poll Tax
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CINCINNATI – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Tennessee filed a petition today with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to re-hear a case challenging a Tennessee law that denies voting rights to people with felony convictions who have outstanding financial obligations related to their conviction or owe child support. The ACLU claims that the law violates both the U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions. The case had previously been dismissed by a three-judge panel in a 2-1 decision.
"Denying voting rights to those who have served their time based solely on their inability to pay a particular debt amounts to unconstitutional discrimination," said Nancy Abudu, senior staff counsel with the ACLU Voting Rights Project. "This law is particularly hard on indigent and low-income people who are trying to put their lives back together. Restoring the right to vote is critical for these individuals to re-integrate into society, and it should not be withheld based on economic status. The court was wrong to dismiss this case, especially in light of Supreme Court cases which routinely have struck down similar laws that discriminate on the basis of wealth."
Though the case was dismissed by the Sixth Circuit, the dissenting opinion supported the ACLU's position that denying access to "the ballot box simply because [the plaintiffs] are too poor to pay" is unconstitutional. The dissenting judge further asserted that linking payments to the right to vote when other collection methods are available "advances no purpose and embodies nothing more than an attempt to exercise unbridled power over a clearly powerless group, which is not a legitimate state interest."
The ACLU is asking for all of the judges of the court to reconsider the case brought on behalf of three plaintiffs who were convicted of felonies and who have completed their terms of imprisonment, parole and probation. Two of the plaintiffs owe restitution connected with their sentence and one owes both restitution and child support. All three have been denied the right to vote despite being able to show that they were unable to meet their financial obligations, but have made good faith efforts to pay what they could. Those without felony convictions who owe child support are still permitted to vote.
"It is unlawful to discriminate against a class of people based on wealth or to require any kind of payment for the right to vote, regardless of a person's criminal history," said Tricia Herzfeld, staff attorney with the ACLU of Tennessee. "Once someone has repaid his debt to society, he must be afforded his basic rights. This law violates the equal protection rights of those with felony convictions, and amounts to an illegal poll tax in violation of the 24th Amendment. We hope the court will do the right thing and agree to re-hear this case."
Attorneys on the case include Abudu and Laughlin McDonald of the ACLU Voting Rights Project and Herzfeld of the ACLU of Tennessee.
The petition for rehearing is available at: www.aclu.org/voting-rights/johnson-v-bedesen-petition-rehearing
For more information on the ACLU Voting Rights Project, please visit: www.aclu.org/voting-rights
For more information on the ACLU of Tennessee's work on voting rights, please visit: www.aclu-tn.org/votingrights.htm