Felony Financial Disenfranchisement

74 Pages Posted: 28 Apr 2022 Last revised: 30 Jan 2023

See all articles by Neel U. Sukhatme

Neel U. Sukhatme

Georgetown University Law Center; Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy

Alexander Billy

Ankura Consulting, LLC; Free Our Vote

Gaurav Bagwe

Bates White, LLC

Date Written: January 10, 2022


Individuals with prior felony convictions often must complete all terms of their sentence before they regain voter eligibility. Many jurisdictions include legal-financial obligations (“LFOs”)—fines, fees, and/or restitution stemming from convictions—in the terms of the sentence. Twenty-eight states, governing over 182 million Americans, either directly or indirectly tie LFO repayment to voting privileges, a practice we call felony financial disenfranchisement.

Proponents of felony financial disenfranchisement posit that returning citizens must satisfy the financial obligations stemming from convictions to restore themselves as community equals. Moralism aside, others claim low rates of electoral participation among those with felony convictions imply such disenfranchisement is inconsequential.

In this Article, we challenge both of these claims. To do so, we draw upon new empirical and contextual evidence from Florida, which disenfranchises more returning citizens than any other state. We rely on data and natural experiments from a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy group that we launched called Free Our Vote.

This Article illustrates how felony financial disenfranchisement creates uncertainty around voter eligibility, which likely deters many otherwise- qualified voters with felony records from participating. We also measure, for the first time, how felony financial disenfranchisement affects voter participation, using a debt relief program implemented by Free Our Vote. Specifically, we compare electoral participation of registered voters whose LFOs were eliminated by Free Our Vote against virtually identical debtors who did not benefit from our program. We find debt relief increased voter turnout by approximately twenty-six percent among this group during the 2020 election.

The contextual and empirical evidence we present unequivocally demonstrates that narratives in favor of felony financial disenfranchisement are misguided. Failure to pay criminal court debt typically arises from bureaucratic complications and opacity as well as indigency. Thus, ethics- oriented arguments grossly misconstrue the challenges returning citizens face. Likewise, the purported benefits of induced criminal court revenue from LFOs are overstated. Given the countervailing costs tied to criminal debt, and its disparate impact on indigent and Black defendants, we conclude that felony financial disenfranchisement is, on balance, a socially harmful policy that should be eliminated.

Keywords: felony disenfranchisement, legal-financial obligation, LFO, amendment 4, equal protection clause, voting rights act, empirical legal studies, randomized control trial, RCT, richardson v. ramirez, criminal fee assessment, debt relief, pay to vote, 2020 election, 2022 election, SB7066, fines

Suggested Citation

Sukhatme, Neel U. and Billy, Alexander and Bagwe, Gaurav, Felony Financial Disenfranchisement (January 10, 2022). 76 Vanderbilt Law Review 143, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4090995 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4090995

Neel U. Sukhatme (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy ( email )

Old North, Suite 100
37th & O Streets NW
Washington, DC 20057
United States

Alexander Billy

Ankura Consulting, LLC ( email )

New York, NY
United States
7246894413 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://https://sites.google.com/georgetown.edu/alexanderbilly/home

Free Our Vote ( email )

HOME PAGE: http://freeourvote.com

Gaurav Bagwe

Bates White, LLC ( email )

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