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Disenfranchisement News: Arizona eliminates “poll tax” for people with first-time felony offenses

August 09, 2019
Arizona eliminates "poll tax" for people with first-time felony offenses, Florida's legal battle on new voting rights measure continues, and more in our latest Disenfranchisement News.

Disenfranchisement News is a monthly electronic newsletter produced by The Sentencing Project. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

New bill expands automatic restoration for people with first-time felony offenses in Arizona

People convicted of a first-time felony offense are no longer required to pay outstanding fines in order to have their voting rights automatically restored. Governor Doug Ducey signed the law in April and advocates applaud the bill as a step towards eliminating a modern-day poll tax. “In a democracy, the right to participate should not depend on the size of your wallet,” wrote Blair Bowie of the Campaign Legal Center.

The law also provides more transparency around the process of rights restoration, such as requiring the court to inform people of their rights at the time of sentencing. The bill also requires judges to explain their reasoning if they deny someone their rights restoration.

Legal battle in Florida continues around new voting rights measure

Civil rights groups requested a preliminary injunction in federal court to block a new state law requiring people with felony convictions to pay all court-ordered restitution, fines and fees before they are allowed to vote. Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Brennan Center for Justice filed suit earlier this year, claiming that SB 7066 is an unconstitutional poll tax that undermines the intent of Florida voters when they overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4. The groups seek to halt the law from going into effect pending their case against it.

Meanwhile Governor Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee have asked a federal judge to dismiss the suit, arguing that the case belongs in state, not federal, court. “State courts should say what state law is,” the lawyers argued. “Florida courts should resolve the meaning of the state Constitution before these cases proceed.

Bipartisan group to study expanding voting rights in Georgia

A bipartisan group of state senators are reviewing Georgia’s felony disenfranchisement laws, with a deadline to make recommendations in time for next year’s legislative session. Currently, Georgia’s Constitution prohibits anyone convicted of a “felony involving moral turpitude” from voting until their sentence is completed. The state has never defined which felonies involve “moral turpitude,” and election officials have interpreted it to mean all felonies trigger the loss of voting rights. After Georgians complete their prison, probation or parole sentence, they are also required to pay off any outstanding court fines before they are eligible to register to vote.

Lawmakers may consider a number of changes to the state’s disenfranchisement laws, including defining felonies involving moral turpitude or reinstating voting rights more quickly for those convicted of non-violent felonies. Senator Harold Jones (D), a member of the bipartisan committee, said it is unlikely that the state will restore voting rights to everyone with a felony conviction or allow voting while in prison.

Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin push to expand voting rights to people on probation and parole

State Senator Lena Taylor and Representative Jodi Emerson recently introduced a package of bills called “Unlock the Vote.” The first bill would expand voting rights to 66,000 people on felony probation and parole.

“The important piece of it is that when people have paid their debt to society, they should be involved and invested in their communities and having somebody have the right to vote gets them invested in their democracy,” said Rep. Emerson. “There are studies that show it reduces recidivism, being more engaged in your community means that you are less likely to commit additional crimes, so if this is one way that we can work to reduce crime by giving people the right to vote I think it’s important that we look at this.”

The second bill would change how the census counts people in prison for the purposes of drawing legislative maps. Currently, people in prison are counted as part of the communities where the prison is located. The bill would count incarcerated people as part of the communities where they resided before incarceration.

The lawmakers are hoping the bills get a hearing this fall.

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