Women of color hit hardest by unconstitutional poll tax
MEDIA BRIEFING: Tuesday July 2, 10:00 A.M. ET, Plaintiff Rosemary McCoy and Southern Poverty Law Center Deputy Legal Director of Voting Rights Nancy Abudu will be available for comments. Please call: 929-477-0448.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A new state law requiring that Floridians with past felony convictions pay fines, fees and restitution before they are eligible to vote is an unconstitutional poll tax and discriminates against people based on their wealth, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
Last year, almost 65 percent of Florida voters passed Amendment 4, changing the state constitution to restore the right to vote to over 1.4 million Floridians who had completed their sentences for felony convictions. In response, the Florida Legislature passed Senate Bill 7066, requiring people convicted of a crime to pay off all their fines and other court-ordered financial obligations before regaining their voting rights. Gov. Ron DeSantis, one of the named defendants in the suit, signed the legislation into law on June 28.
The SPLC lawsuit was filed on behalf of people like Rosemary McCoy who, months after regaining the right to vote, had that right rescinded “based purely on their low-income economic status,” the complaint states. “The State of Florida has a very long and storied history of denying poor people, racial minorities, and women the right to vote.”
Women of color are paid less than their male and white female counterparts, and are likely to be more adversely affected by the new law, the SPLC argues. Nearly a quarter of all black women in Florida live below the poverty line and the unemployment rate for black women with a felony conviction is more than 43 percent.
McCoy and Sheila Singleton, both black women from Jacksonville, are the named plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit filed today by the SPLC in the Northern District of Florida. The lawsuit argues that the new law violates amendments 8, 14 and 24 of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law and freedom from poll taxes and excessive fines.
“We work, we pay taxes, but we don’t have a voice in our communities,” McCoy said. “We should have the right to hold our elected officials accountable and participate in our local political process.”
Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for voting rights at the SPLC, said McCoy and others in her situation are in danger of being disenfranchised again.
“When Gov. DeSantis signed this law, he created a permanent group of second-class citizens,” Abudu said. “Under this law, people who have outstanding fines, court fees and restitution – even when they have been converted from criminal sentences to civil liens – will be denied their fundamental right to vote.”
The new law contradicts the intent and plain language of Amendment 4, the lawsuit states. Florida voters overwhelmingly approved the constitutional amendment in November 2018 after recognizing that the law – which permanently bars people with felony convictions from voting even after serving their sentences – was unfair and discriminatory, Abudu said.
The new law also creates an unconstitutional poll tax on people who cannot afford to buy back their right to vote. It promotes wealth-based discrimination and fails to consider a person’s ability to pay court fines, violating the constitutional right to equal protection and due process, according to the complaint. The lawsuit also states that the new law violates the constitutional prohibition of excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment.
“In a state where poverty rates among children, women and racial minorities remain disproportionately high, most especially among black women, the denial of voting rights based on one’s economic status is not only contrary to what true democracy looks like, but also feeds into widespread apathy and distrust of the political system,” Abudu said.
McCoy, who spent 21 months in prison and served 18 months on probation for charges of theft, racketeering and organized fraud, registered to vote in April and cast a ballot in Jacksonville’s runoff city council election in May. However, if an election were held today, the new law holds that people like McCoy, who owes more than $7,000 in court-ordered debt, would not be eligible to cast a ballot.
McCoy said she cannot afford to repay the debt – as interest continues to accrue – even as her struggle to find employment has become harder because of her criminal conviction.
“I lost all my money, I lost everything,” McCoy said. “I’m not going to let them take my right to vote.”
The full complaint can be viewed here: https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/complaint.pdf