For most North Carolinians, the answer might seem obvious: none. As the cornerstone of our democracy, voting is supposed to be fair, accessible – and free. But for an increasing number of North Carolinians, the right to vote can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
How is that possible? The answer is because North Carolina denies the right to vote to people who have felony convictions but cannot afford to pay their court costs, even if they have satisfied all other probation requirements.
Thanks to an ever-growing system of mandatory fines and fees, those caught up in the criminal justice system can be forced to pay anywhere from $40 to hundreds of dollars a month for the cost of their court administration, jail fees, probation, electronic monitoring, drug testing, even community service – and more. If they are unable to pay, they face a penalty fee for nonpayment, increasing their fees and lengthening their probation period.
These costs have increased substantially over time. In 1999, the base cost a person would pay for a superior court date was $106. Today the base cost is $198 with the potential to grow to more than $10,000 in serious cases as additional penalties snowball. Even if they have served all the terms of their sentence, even if they have had no probation violations, low-income people often remain on probation simply because they are low-income. And in far too many North Carolina courts, judges will not conduct hearings on a person’s inability to pay, as is required by law.
Among the 85,000 people currently on probation in North Carolina, a staggering 80 to 90 percent of defendants are indigent. Indigent defendants lack the finances to afford an attorney. For the thousands of people who have fulfilled the terms of their sentence but are unable to pay off their court fees, they can remain on probation – and unable to cast a vote – as long as they owe the state money. This two-tiered justice system – where those can afford to pay court fees have their voting rights restored, and those who cannot are disenfranchised – amounts to nothing more than a modern-day poll tax.
Quite often, these individuals are not aware that they are still denied the right to vote. Last month, a report from the State Board of Elections showed that of the 4.8 million votes cast in North Carolina’s last election, 508 were ineligible. The vast majority of those (441, or about 87 percent) were ineligible because the votes were cast by felons.
Given that such a large percentage of criminal defendants are indigent, it is reasonable to assume that a fair number remained on probation for no other reason than they could not afford their court costs.
The accessibility and fairness of our elections have been vigorously debated in the courts, the legislature, and in the public square. Just last year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down our state’s sweeping voter suppression law because it unconstitutionally restricted voting access for African Americans “with almost surgical precision.” A recent poll found that four out of five North Carolina voters say it is not fair for politicians to draw their own districts and pick their own voters – adding momentum to the push for nonpartisan redistricting reform.
But too often overlooked are the thousands of North Carolinians for whom voting is not free. These neighbors, friends, family, and co-workers have served their sentences and paid their debt to society. Yet they remain shut out of the ballot box simply because they lack the finances to throw off the yolk of an ever-expanding maze of monthly court fees and added penalties.
When North Carolinians talk about protecting our democracy and the right to vote, we must not ignore those who have been disenfranchised by an unjust, two-tiered criminal justice system in dire need of reform.
Cristina Becker is the Criminal Justice Debt Fellow for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.