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Activists claim fees, postage amount to modern-day poll taxes

Cecilia Washington isn't sure exactly how many thousands of dollars in outstanding court fees she still owes in Bradenton, Florida, a vestige of her most recent felony conviction.

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Fredreka Schouten
CNN — Cecilia Washington isn't sure exactly how many thousands of dollars in outstanding court fees she still owes in Bradenton, Florida, a vestige of her most recent felony conviction.

But she knows the high price of that unpaid bill: Unless she can find a way to erase the debt soon, she will be barred from casting a ballot in November's general election. A federal appellate court ruled last week that prohibiting ex-felons with unpaid court fees and fines from voting does not constitute an unconstitutional poll tax.

"If I don't get an opportunity to vote, I'm going to be heartbroken," said Washington, a 40-year-old Orlando resident who has been active in efforts to restore voting rights to the formerly incarcerated. "People make mistakes. This is real life, and God forgives everybody."

The price of voting has become the subject of intense political debate as voting-rights activists and elected officials battle over what constitutes an undue financial burden for those trying to cast their ballots. In Florida, the fight has centered on efforts to restore voting rights to some 1.4 million former felons in a crucial swing state President Donald Trump won four years ago by fewer than 113,000 votes out of more than 9.3 million cast.

In Alabama, a federal trial has focused on whether it's fair to ask voters mailing in absentee ballots to provide copies of their voter identification if they don't have smartphones or access to copying machines. Alabama officials and voting-rights groups also are battling over the requirement that voters sign their absentee ballots in front of a notary or two witnesses.

In other places, lawsuits and political fights have erupted over who will pay the postage for ballots as states around the country turn to mail-in voting amid the coronavirus pandemic. In Georgia, for instance, the ACLU is appealing a federal court ruling that found requiring voters to use stamps to mail in their absentee ballots does not amount to an unlawful poll tax.

And in Ohio, members of the Republican elections chief's own party on the state budget board blocked his plan to cover the cost of postage, making it likely that Ohioans voting by mail will have to buy their own stamps.

The outcomes of these political battles vary by state: In Virginia, where Democrats now control the governor's mansion and both chambers of the state legislature, Gov. Ralph Northam recently signed a law allocating $2 million for prepaid postage on all absentee ballots.

Absentee ballots in Virginia start to become available to voters later this week.

Stamps as an obstacle

Mailing in a ballot "may sound so simple to many people, but if you don't have that stamp, and you're juggling a whole bunch of kids and you're exhausted, it gets complicated," said Mindy Romero, who runs the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California.

"Having a stamp shouldn't be a litmus test for somebody's commitment to doing their civic duty," she added. "People have a right to vote, and it should be made as easy as possible."

But some state officials say providing postage poses too great a strain on government resources as tens of millions of Americans prepare to cast ballots by mail and states reel from the pandemic's toll on their economies. In Georgia, the state told a trial judge earlier this year that the cost of designing and printing prepaid envelopes could run as high at $4.2 million.

Liberal groups worry that postage also could prove an obstacle for a key voting bloc that Democrats hope to reach in November: Younger voters casting their ballots for the first time.

A recent poll for NextGen America -- a group founded by California Democratic billionaire and erstwhile presidential candidate Tom Steyer -- found that only 52% of young voters they surveyed said they currently had stamps at home or knew where to buy them and fewer than half said they understood how to get a mail ballot.

The group has moved to fill the gaps. Nationally, it has mailed more 830,000 absentee request forms to college campuses, including postage-paid return envelopes, said Dan Bristol, a NextGen spokesman.

In the swing state of New Hampshire, which Trump lost by a narrow margin in 2016, NextGen is distributing 3,000 "voter supply bags" -- which include pre-addressed, pre-paid envelopes to send in absentee-ballot requests -- to campuses, coffee shops and other small businesses around the state to reach college-age voters.

"If you can remove an extra step or delay, a voter is much more likely to cast their ballot," Bristol said.

Big financial hurdles

In Florida, formerly incarcerated people like Washington face far bigger hurdles.

A federal appeals court last week sharply restricted Florida's successful 2018 referendum that aimed to restore voting rights to more than 1.4 million ex-felons who had completed the terms of their sentences, including parole and probation.

Last year, the Republican-controlled legislature and the state's GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis approved a law that defined "all terms of sentence" as including outstanding fines, fees and restitution before they could register to vote. By a 6-4 ruling, the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld that law, reversing a lower court decision that concluded Florida had set up an unconstitutional "pay-to-vote" system.

DeSantis' communication director Fred Piccolo said in a statement that the appellate ruling affirmed that "all terms of the sentence means all terms." Former felons, he said, have "multiple avenues" to pay off their debts and "seek financial forgiveness" from crime victims.

"Second chances and the rule of law are not mutually exclusive," Piccolo added.

Desmond Meade, who runs the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition that pushed the referendum, called the requirements "an obstruction of democracy."

"This impacts every American," he said. "The criminal justice system has snared countless Americans, and unfortunately has caused them to lose their civil rights."

The ruling also has big political implications for November's election.

An expert witness testified at trial that more than 774,000 people with felony convictions were ineligible to register to vote because of outstanding financial obligations. That represents a significant number of potential voters left on the sidelines in a presidential swing state. Recent polls show a close contest in the state between Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden.

Voting-rights advocates argue the state lacks a centralized system to let former felons know exactly how much they owe, leaving them to navigate a patchwork of court systems across Florida's 67 counties.

So far, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, has used $4 million in donated funds to help pay off outstanding fees and fines for about 4,000 ex-felons, said Neil Volz, its deputy director.

The coalition already has helped Washington pay off her outstanding fines in one county, last December -- Hillsborough County -- where court officials have worked with the nonprofit coalition to ease the financial burdens the ex-felons face. (Under the terms in that county, the coalition generally pays 60% of the fines, and the county forgives 40%, Volz said.)

But Washington, who said she has been in and out of jail or prison since she was about 18 or 19, said she has other unpaid fees that she believes now total more than $3,500 in Manatee County, where Bradenton is located.

In an interview, she ticked off the charges against her over the years, which also show up in court records: credit card fraud, driving without a license, theft -- all rooted, she said, in a rough childhood leavened mostly by the presence of a loving grandmother.

Washington said she's rediscovered religion, found a new life and a place of her own in recent years in Orlando and now wants to fully rejoin society by becoming a voter.

She's currently unemployed but makes some money braiding hair and is hoping for a miracle -- or a benefactor -- to help clear up those remaining court costs before it's too late.

"I believe in God," Washington said. "And if I had the money, it would take me 'til tomorrow to go to Manatee County and pay those fines and fees."

Time is running out. The last day to register to vote in Florida is October 5.

Look up your state election deadlines here.

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