Before the Supreme Court outlawed them in the 1960s, the use of poll taxes had been widespread in American elections throughout history, imposed as a means of systematically disenfranchising populations that those in power wanted to keep from voting – namely Black people, women, and poor people.
Today most Americans rightfully look back at poll taxes as a disgraceful and racist stain on our democracy, which is what makes the emerging effort to reinvent them for the 21st century so horrifying.
On Jan. 4, lawmakers in the Wisconsin legislature proposed bills that would require people with felony convictions to pay all fines imposed as part of their sentence before regaining their voting rights. While on its face, this may not look as explicitly exclusionary as the poll taxes of our past, it achieves a similar aim: to make it harder for over-policed and criminalized groups, disproportionately Black people, people in poverty, and people of color to exercise their right to vote.
Under current law, Wisconites who have past felony convictions can legally vote once they have finished serving their sentence and are no longer on parole and probation or “off-paper.” The newly-introduced legislation adds an additional stipulation that makes the restoration of their voting rights contingent upon the full repayment of any fines, costs, fees, surcharges, and restitution related to their convictions. In effect, the constitutional rights of thousands of people in Wisconsin would come at a cost.
Buying back your rights wouldn’t be cheap, either. People in prison are disproportionately low-income and often return from incarceration with sizable debt that they already struggle to pay off. Requiring people to eliminate that debt before casting their vote adds insult to injury.
According to an analysis in the HuffPost, the combined carceral debt of formerly incarcerated people in the United States adds up to about $50 billion, a staggeringly large figure – especially considering that the average returning citizen, if they have a job, earns only a little more than $10,000 in their first year back in society.
To see the devastating consequences of such a law, we can look at what has happened in Florida, a state that passed a similar piece of legislation now being used as a model for what’s being tried in Wisconsin. In response to Florida voters’ overwhelming approval of Amendment 4 – a ballot measure that automatically restored voting rights to most returning citizens – the state government overturned the will of Floridians. It passed a law requiring full repayment of court-related fines and fees to vote.
People in Florida often cannot determine how much they owe or ensure that they are credited with payments they make, resulting in loss of voting rights even after all debts are paid. And disenfranchisement of directly impacted voters in Florida remains a significant problem: The Sentencing Project reports that 900,000 Floridians with past convictions still have yet to regain their voting rights.
Your voting rights should never depend on how much money you have. The attempt to bar those who would otherwise be eligible to vote from the ballot box through a poll tax fits into the broader project of disenfranchising Wisconsinites of color that has been underway for years now.
We must continue to stand against efforts to undermine democracy in our state. We must always reject anything that would turn our electoral system into a luxury reversed only for those who can afford it.