Report: As Nevada clears way for ex-felons to vote, most other states still require restitution and fee payments for eligibility

While Nevada has a new law expanding the ability of former prisoners to vote, requirements in 30 other states where fines and fees are paid to establish eligibility continue to disenfranchise Americans long after they serve their sentence, a civil rights think tank said in a new report.

Gov. Steve Sisolak signed AB431 into law on May 29, restoring the right to vote to any person who has completed a prison sentence of any kind. In 2016, at least 90,000 Nevadans — about 4 percent of the voting age population — could not vote because of a criminal conviction. The new law went into effect on July 1.

“The right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights guaranteed to all citizens and the bedrock of a strong and healthy democracy,” Sisolak said. “As governor, I firmly believe that we should be doing everything we can to expand access to the ballot box, not restrict it.”

Although Nevada’s law is in line with a number of states that have recently restored voting rights to those who formerly were incarcerated, an analysis from the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center (CLC) found that the majority of states require a person to pay their legal financial obligations — including restitution to victims, fines and fees to agencies involved in their prosecution — in order to regain their right to vote. The fees can take years to pay off — or be nearly impossible to pay, at all, said the center.

The CLC estimates that 10 million people owe more than $50 billion in fines and fees related to criminal convictions. The CLC likens rules requiring ex-felons to clear their financial obligations before they are eligible to vote to poll taxes, which were deemed unconstitutional in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966) — and by the ratification of the Twenty-fourth Amendment.

The report says that “faced with limited economic resources and opportunities, formerly incarcerated individuals often struggle to keep up with, much less pay entirely, legal financial obligations resulting from their past convictions.”

One such case cited in the report is that of 58-year-old office manager Bonnie Raysor. A native of Boynton Beach, Florida, Raysor became addicted to opioids as a teenager and served 18 months in prison on six felony drug charges. 

Under a new Florida law, Raysor will have to pay $4,260 in order to have her right to vote restored. If she pays $30 a month as stipulated by her court-ordered payment plan, Raysor will not be able to vote in the state of Florida until 2031.

These practices disproportionately affect African Americans, CLC says. As of 2016, at least one in 13 African Americans in the U.S. have had their right to vote revoked.

Nevada leaders have already started trying to increase voter participation among people who were formerly blocked from voting. Attorney General Aaron Ford launched a public awareness campaign earlier this year to inform felons of the restoration of their right to vote. Ford also intends to provide information to guide formerly incarcerated persons through the process of restoring their civil rights.

The CLC has been active in Nevada in recent years, including running the Restore Your Vote campaign in the 2018 cycle that sought to help formerly incarcerated people regain their voting rights.