Federal Court Upholds Law Denying Right to Vote to Dads ‘Simply Because They are Too Poor to Pay’ Child Support

This case is noteworthy.  It’s a decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit which includes the State of Tennessee.  It holds constitutional a Tennessee law that requires former felons who have served their time to pay their child support in full in order to have their right to vote reinstated.

Specifically, until 2006, Tennessee law disenfranchised those convicted of a felony.  In 2006, it amended the law to allow felons to reacquire the right to vote if they met certain requirements.  Those include the full discharge of their sentence and payment of all restitution required by their original sentence and the payment of all child support obligations.  Failure to pay child support in full means you can’t vote in Tennessee.

The majority of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that that statutory scheme does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the 24th Amendment and other constitutional proscriptions (e.g. against ex-post facto laws).

The dissent argued that it unconstitutionally discriminates against people who are too poor to meet the requirements as the defendants in the case are.

It’s an interesting case for a number of reasons.  One is the fact that, whatever happened in the case cited, it is entirely possible for a parent to lose his/her right to vote solely because of inability to pay child support. 

Consider the father who loses his job, can’t pay his support obligation, which duly accrues penalties and interest.  He is now a felon and can be incarcerated.  While in prison, his arrearages can still accumulate and, not being employed, he won’t be able to pay them off or do anything to keep them from increasing.  Under laws like the Tennessee statute, he’ll lose the right to vote because he lost his job.

Second, once again we see that the inability to pay child support is uniquely demonized by our laws.  While no one defends a parent who can pay but arbitrarily refuses to do so, many parents (mostly fathers) fall behind through no fault of their own.  Stated another way, the economy has changed, but child support legislation hasn’t. 

Neither have family courts that make downward revisions to child support based on changed circumstances (e.g. loss of employment) a slow, expensive and often futile process.  As Canadian social scientist Paul Millar wrote in his recent book “The Best Interests of Children: An Evidence-Based Approach,”

The variation in income brings to light the inappropriateness of the courts as an instutution to manage child support since family situations and household income change frequently, but courts are designed to handle infrequently ocurring events…

In short, family law and family courts frankly prefer greater levels of child support and are at peace with the arrearages, fees and interest that poor fathers inevitably incur.  The point being that what Tennessee now erects as a barrier to voting occurs commonly.  As the dissent in the linked-to case wrote,

It is indisputable that the Plaintiffs are now unable to access the ballot box simply because they are too poor to pay…

Simply put, Tennessee has no rational basis for denying voting rights to only those felons with outstanding financial obligations, despite their inability to pay.

Let’s not forget that the Office of Child Support Enforcement has reported that 63% of child support obligors in arrears on their payments report under $10,000 in annual income.  Now, we all understand that some of those noncustodial parents aren’t reporting everything they earn.  But the fact remains that one of the biggest obstacles to paying is the inability to do so. 

That point was driven home recently when the State of New Jersey conducted a statewide “sweep” of dilinquent obligors.  They arrested hundreds of parents who, faced with a choice of paying or going to prison, overwhelmingly didn’t pay.  The state collected six cents for every dollar owed.  If that doesn’t tell you something about noncustodial parents’ ability to pay, nothing will.

It seems that no indignity is too great to be visited on a child support obligor.  Let a murderer complete his lengthy sentence, and he can reacquire his voting rights; he can operate a motor vehicle and acquire other licenses that allow him to work and become a regular citizen again.  In my mind, that’s as it should be; whatever the crime, there should be an end to punishment.

But not so the impecunious man who is now unable to afford the child support he was ordered to pay when he had a job.  For him and him alone, no punishment is harsh enough. 

And indeed, many of those punishments run directly counter to the notion that we want him to pay.  How depriving him of his liberty or his ability to drive a car or truck or meet other qualifications for gainful employment helps him to support his child is a mystery still awaiting solution. 

Now he’s denied the right to vote, which would, if he were able to exercise it, allow him to influence who holds state legislative office and therefore what the laws on child support in his state are.  But never mind.  As I said no punishment seems so harsh to judges and lawmakers that it can’t be suffered by a father whose only crime is the loss of a job in one of the worst economies in this nation’s history.

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