No Money, No Vote: How Imposed Fines, Fees and Cost Keep Black People From Voting

No Money, No Vote: How Imposed Fines, Fees and Cost Keep Black People From Voting


When a person leaves jail/prison, it is often said that he or she has “paid their debt to society.” But for many ex-offenders, the debt grows even after prison ends. In addition to jail or prison time, many defendants are sentenced to pay fines, costs, fees, or restitution. These financial penalties are legal financial obligations (LFOs). Like any other part of a sentence, the failure to satisfy one’s LFOs has consequences.  When these fees are not paid, the freed offenders lose many rights — including the right to vote. Due to the racial imbalances in the criminal justice system, most of these offenders who lose their rights are African-American.

When someone is convicted of a crime a judge can impose monetary sanctions in addition to jail time. Some courts require the convicted party to pay restitution to the victim or to the state’s victim relief fund. Some courts require repayment of court costs. If a defendant is sentenced to probation, the court may shift some of the supervision costs to the probationer. The amounts of these LFOs are sometimes far from trivial. An American Bar Association article notes that some crimes carry fines of up to $500,000.

According to Dr. Alexes Harris, professor of sociology at the University of Washington and author of “A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor,” it is difficult to assess LFOs on a national level because many jurisdictions are involved. Nevertheless, some figures are available. In Washington state, for example, for each conviction a defendant can expect to incur an average of $1,300 in costs and fees.

Notably, LFOs are not limited to serious crimes. One of Dr. Harris’ reports explains that technically, a traffic ticket is an LFO. LFOs are imposed for crimes ranging from the most severe felonies to the most minor of misdemeanors. Dr. Harris further explained that LFOs know no age limit, as LFOs have been imposed for juvenile infractions.

To fully understand how LFOs impact a person’s ability to vote, one must understand the history of felon disenfranchisement.

Until the Civil War, most states restricted the vote to white males. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited states from using race or color as voting qualifications.  For a brief period during the Reconstruction era, African-Americans in the South voted and elected the first African-American representatives to Congress. The progress, however, was short-lived. Confederate loyalists, still stung by their loss in the war, were not willing to share power with African-Americans. This racial resentment led states to pass laws that made voting more difficult for African-Americans, including felon disenfranchisement laws.