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Tuesday, February 26, 2019
Rule of Law Clinic Students Advocate for Voting Rights in CT Legislature
Yale Law School students in the Rule of Law Clinic filed written testimony on February 22, 2019, with the Connecticut General Assembly, urging the legislature to expand voting rights for formerly incarcerated people.
The students — together with Danielle Lang ’12, Co-Director of Voting Rights & Redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center — submitted testimony supporting Senate Bill 22, which would establish that no Connecticut resident needs to pay fines in connection with a past conviction before voting. One of the students, Josh Rubin ’20, also delivered oral testimony supporting the bill on February 15 before the Government Administration and Elections Committee of the General Assembly.
Connecticut law currently requires that individuals with prior out-of-state or federal felony convictions pay “all fines in conjunction with the conviction” before having their right to vote restored. However, the same requirement to pay fines does not apply to individuals with prior in-state felony convictions, according to the clinic.
Connecticut is one of only a handful of states that still explicitly hinges the right to vote on the payment of fines or fees. And Connecticut is the only state in the country that singles out a particular class of individuals based on the jurisdiction where they were convicted, and then withholds voting rights from those individuals until they are able to pay off their fines, according to the clinic.
The written testimony explains that passing SB 22 would “make Connecticut’s voting system simpler and more just” while bringing Connecticut into line with the majority of states, which do not condition individuals’ voting rights on their payment of fines.
“By making some individuals pay fines before voting, Connecticut law currently conditions the right to vote on a person’s ability to pay,” Rubin said during testimony before the Committee on February 15. A requirement to pay fines before voting is not only at odds with constitutional principles, but also “deeply inconsistent with Connecticut’s values as a second-chance society,” Rubin added.
Laws like Connecticut’s run counter to the longstanding, fundamental value that no one should lose the right to vote because they lack financial means. The Supreme Court explained in 1966 that under the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, “voter qualifications have no relation to wealth.” This principle is also reflected in the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, which bans poll taxes.
On top of conditioning the right to vote on a person’s ability to pay fines, Connecticut’s current law also draws an irrational distinction between people based on where they were convicted. By making it harder for one of these groups to vote without a rational basis, the current law likely violates the Equal Protection Clause, the students and Lang wrote.
“Connecticut law already recognizes that our neighbors who have done their time in Connecticut state prison have the fundamental right to vote, regardless of outstanding fines,” Danielle Zucker ’20 said. “There is no justification for treating people any differently if they were convicted in an out-of-state or federal system.”
The complexity of the current statute, with its different paths to re-enfranchisement for different groups of formerly incarcerated people, also causes confusion among voters and even election officials, according to the written testimony.
“Even registrars of voters have been surprised to learn about this two-tiered system, because it simply doesn’t make sense,” Jeff Zalesin ’19 said. “It’s all but certain that some eligible voters have been deterred from voting because they’ve received incorrect or conflicting information about the law.”
The students working on this project are Brandon DeBot ’20, Josh Rubin ’20, Jeff Zalesin ’19, and Danielle Zucker ’20. The supervising attorney on the project is Clinical Lecturer in Law Hope Metcalf.
The Rule of Law Clinic focuses on maintaining U.S. rule of law and human rights commitments in four areas: national security, anti-discrimination, climate change, and democracy promotion.