The death of Congressman John Lewis last Friday night accomplished what police officers with their billy clubs and white mobs, with their fists and pipes, never were able to achieve: Silencing his voice.
For 60 years, Lewis expressed his opinions — on segregation, on voting rights, on economic inequality — during sit-ins, picketing and speeches. Not everyone was interested in his views. More than once he was beaten nearly to death, and his head bore scars of a skull fracture and those beatings.
Last year, Lewis arose at the Capitol to make his point once again: “Voting access is the key to equality in our democracy. The size of your wallet, the number on your zip code shouldn’t matter. The action of government affects every American, so every citizen should have an equal voice.”
Lewis was in failing health, so there was no opportunity the day before his death to seek his reaction when an order came down from the U.S. Supreme Court. That order puts on hold, temporarily at least, a federal judge’s ruling that nearly 1 million Florida felons are being prevented from voting because of an unconstitutional pay-to-vote system for restoring voting rights.
Even with Lewis’ voice now quiet, Iowans should pay attention to the court proceedings in the Florida case because our state’s system for restoration of voting rights is similar. That’s why there is so much focus on Gov. Kim Reynolds’ much-anticipated executive order that will make changes, maybe large or maybe small, in the process for allowing Iowa felons to regain their access to the ballot box after they finish their prison terms or probation.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle presided over a trial in May to decide whether Florida can prevent felons from voting after they are released from prison if they have unpaid court fines, court fees and restitution.
His decision is far-reaching, assuming it is upheld by the full 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.
Hinkle wrote, “This order holds that the state can condition voting on payment of fines and restitution that a person is able to pay, but cannot condition voting on payment of amounts a person is unable to pay or on payment of taxes, even those labeled fees or costs.”
The judge pointed to the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That amendment prohibits government from denying or limiting the right to vote if a person fails to pay “any poll tax or other tax.”
During much of the 20th century, Southern states collected a poll tax as a way to keep most Blacks and many other poor citizens from voting.
Mark Graber, director of litigation for the Campaign Legal Center, which represents some of the felons in the Florida case, is optimistic the judge’s decision will stand after all of the appeals. Graber told the Tampa Bay Times, “This is like a bedrock principle of constitutional law that you can’t hinge someone’s rights on whether they have the money in their pocketbook. So, at the end of the day, the court will see that.”
The arguments used to defend Florida’s system for reinstating felons’ right to vote sound very similar to the arguments used in Iowa.
Judge Hinkle explained: “The state’s principal justification for the pay-to-vote system is that a felon should be required to satisfy the felon’s entire criminal sentence before being allowed to vote — that the felon should be required to pay the felon’s entire debt to society.”
But the financial obligations at issue exist separate and apart from and for reasons unrelated to voting, he said. There is no attempt by Florida officials to prohibit a citizen from voting if the person is in arrears on federal income taxes or state property taxes, he pointed out.
Three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals wrote in an earlier decision in the Florida case that there is an inherent flaw in using restoration of felons’ voting rights as a way of collecting court-ordered fees and restitution.
“The problem with the incentive-collections theory is that it relies on the notion that the [destitute] would, with the prospect of being able to vote, begin to scratch and claw for every penny, ignoring the far more powerful incentives that already exist for them — like putting food on the table, a roof over their heads, and clothes on their backs. The simple truth is that a collection-based rationale for those who genuinely cannot pay, and who offer no immediate prospects of being able to do so, erects a barrier without delivering any money at all.”
The appeals judges continued: “Here, these plaintiffs are punished more harshly than those who committed precisely the same crime — by having their right to vote taken from them likely for their entire lives. … Indeed, the wealthy identical felon, with identical culpability, has his punishment cease.”
And John Lewis, that principled voice for what is fair and equitable, certainly would agree with the judges that poor felons should not be punished longer than felons with wealthier means.
All Iowans, including our governor, should be able to agree with Lewis on this, too.
By Randy Evans
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