Under a new law, thousands of Missouri voters could have to pay $15 to acquire the documents needed to get an ID to vote.
Wyoming voters also face their state’s new ID law, passed last year, which requires a government or student identification card to cast a ballot. Voters without one must present certain proof of identity to obtain the state’s free voter ID. A birth certificate there costs $25.
Voter rights advocates argue these costs amount to a poll tax, declared unconstitutional over 50 years ago, and point to an array of factors that can make casting a ballot more costly for some voters.
Voters today may not be charged a literal poll tax, the fees created in the late 1800s to keep Black men from voting, but ID requirements, transportation and lack of paid time off to vote all ultimately come with price tags. A flurry of new voting restrictions have made it even more costly, especially for voters of color.
A majority of states ask for some form of identification to vote. The type of acceptable ID ranges from a driver’s license to a utility bill. Some states offer alternative ways to prove one’s identity, including sworn affidavits and signature matching.
While many states require some form of identification to cast a ballot, they often have workarounds, such as a signed affidavit or signature matching, that still allow people to vote. Some also allow a variety of documents, such as utility bills or pay stubs.
But 12 states strictly require a government-issued ID. Some also accept an ID from a tribe or a university. While those states offer free identification cards for the purpose of voting, obtaining them can still be costly because the process usually requires documentation, such as a birth certificate.
About this series
This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
People who are low-income, older adults and Indigenous Americans are less likely to have these papers on hand.
“This is more so the case with older Natives,” said Allison Neswood, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund. “Maybe they weren’t born in a regular hospital and so [they] don’t have certain types of documents that are more common for other folks to have. That can definitely add to the cost of just that one piece of voting.”
As of 2018, state-issued birth certificates cost as much as $34, with 22 states charging $20 or more.
When ID cards are required to vote and that identification “costs $20, that’s a poll tax,” said Scot Schraufnagel, professor of political science at Northern Illinois University and co-author of a series of studies on the cost of voting in the U.S.
This comparison is not new. A decade ago, then-Attorney General Eric Holder called Texas’ strict voter ID requirement a poll tax, noting identification cards usually come with fees.
“Many of those without IDs would have to travel great distances to get them and some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them,” Holder said in a speech to the NAACP in 2012. “We call those poll taxes.”
Getting to the polls also can add costs, especially for voters without cars or who have to travel long distances to cast a ballot. The problem worsened after the closure of thousands of polling places since 2013. Voters in rural areas face unique challenges, while Americans of color in even suburban and urban areas are more likely to pay for a ride on Election Day. When voters are required to take separate trips to register to vote and then cast their ballot, costs are doubled.
A federal judge in September upheld the country’s only voter transportation ban. The Michigan law, originating in 1895 and updated in 1982, prohibits anyone from hiring a motor vehicle to bring voters to the polls unless they are physically unable to walk. Advocates argue it hinders get-out-the-vote efforts in communities without easy access to transportation.
People of color face higher rates of unreliable access to transportation, which can affect voter turnout. A recent study of the 2018 midterm elections found 66% of people with access to a car voted, compared to 36% of those without a car.
Some local governments, nonprofit organizations and private companies stepped up to narrow the gap by offering free or reduced-rate transportation on Election Day. Rideshare apps like Lyft will offer discounted trips this year and will donate rides to nonprofits like the League of Women Voters, Voto Latino Foundation and the NAACP.
However, these get-out-the-vote efforts are difficult to implement in some Indigenous communities, Neswood said, because of the long drive to the nearest voting location. About 95,000 Native American households do not have access to a vehicle, according to the National Equality Atlas.
“It takes a lot of resources if the voting location is an hour or two hours away from folks and you don’t have a big bus,” Neswood said. “You still got to go back and forth, it still takes a lot of time.”
Even some people who do have access to a car face high transportation costs when trying to vote. This includes rural voters who face 90-minute round trips to polling places “at a time when gas prices are significant,” said Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs.
“There is no question that even if you’re somebody who is considered a habitual voter, the constellation of problems that could come up when it’s time to vote is much greater here than if you could just walk a block to your polling place,” Hladik said.
While voting by mail can reduce costs for many, for some rural voters who do not receive mail directly to their homes, “even the post office is a real journey,” Hladik said.
Transportation costs are doubled in areas that require people to take multiple trips to both register to vote and then actually cast their ballot. Twenty-eight states do not allow same-day voter registration on Election Day or during early voting.
The right to same-day registration has been argued in courts across the country this year, with Montana’s Supreme Court temporarily legalizing it in late September. Conversely, in October, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled the state’s newly implemented same-day registration policy unconstitutional.
Time off to vote
While some countries schedule their Election Day on the weekend or designate it as a national holiday, the U.S. left it to the states to decide if workers get time off to vote. The amount of time voters have to cast ballots and if they get paid while doing so also varies by state, leading some workers to choose between civic engagement and paying their bills.
Voters across the country reported conflicting schedules as the most common reason for not voting from 2008 to 2014 and in 2018, according to the Census Bureau.
In 29 states, employers must give workers time off to vote on Election Day. Most have time limits ranging from one to three hours.
But in seven states, time off to vote does not have to be paid. Ohio requires compensation only for salaried employees. Oklahoma gives voters paid time off, but employers are allowed to change workers’ schedules to give them time to get to the polls on Election Day off company time.
Simply having the right to vote on a workday does not guarantee people can actually afford to take the time off, said Sabrina Khan, senior supervising attorney for voting rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Workers whose time off is unpaid have to decide whether to lose wages for the sake of voting. Even those who are compensated may have to forgo voting under their state’s time limits if they have to travel far to the polls or face hours-long lines once there.
Unpaid or limited time off to vote has become less feasible for workers because of the “constant moving, closing and consolidating of polling places” across the country, Khan said. This disproportionately affects communities of color, Khan said, who have been left waiting in lines up to five hours in states including Georgia and Florida.
Early voting can help address long lines on Election Day. For residents of the four states that do not offer in-person early voting — Alabama, Mississippi, Connecticut and New Hampshire — only Alabamans have the right to time off work to vote. They have up to one hour and are not paid.
“You might be working a job where yes, you have a protected right to take time off to cast your ballot, but for all practical reasons, maybe you only have an hour,” Khan said. “You need to make sure you make your wages, so you have a limited amount of time.”
An estimated 5.2 million voting age adults cannot cast a ballot because they have a felony conviction, according to a 2020 report from the Sentencing Project. Within the 27 states that do not immediately restore the right to vote after release, some felons must pay all charges related to their conviction before they can vote again. These fees can stack up as a person goes through the criminal justice system, barring those who cannot afford it from the ballot.
Five states — Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee — have laws explicitly requiring payment of all felony-related fines and fees to restore voting rights. Other states have more implicit policies with price tags, like parole periods or clemency requests that depend on similar payments.
Khan said felony disenfranchisement laws disproportionately affect people of color. As of 2020, one in 16 Black Americans of voting age are disenfranchised, a rate 3.7 times greater than those of other races, according to the Sentencing Project.
Those coming out of the criminal justice system have a “hard transition” when having to pay to restore their voting rights, Khan said. “People have said it feels like there’s no end in sight and they’re just waiting to exercise their political voice.”
Florida has become a battleground for felony disenfranchisement. In 2018, voters approved the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative. This reinstated approximately 1.4 million people’s right to vote, including Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
“Many of us went out and registered to vote that day,” Volz said.
A few months later, the Florida Legislature passed provisions requiring people to pay any fee or fine associated with their sentence before they can vote. Almost 775,000 people — over half of the 1.4 million enfranchised felons — lost their newly restored rights, according to a University of Florida study.
“You would go from a euphoric feeling, a celebration of democracy, to dejection and heartbreak relatively quickly,” Volz said.
While the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition supports the state requiring felons to pay sentenced restitution or punitive fines, Volz said, those are not the only costs incurred in the criminal justice system. Extra fees can come in the form of public attorney fees, incarceration costs, probation supervision charges and more — costs not unique to Florida.
Volz said these extra fees are about funding the state, not punishing someone for a crime. Various states and cities use this money to finance both their criminal justice systems and unrelated municipal services, according to the Campaign Legal Center.
“We have hundreds of thousands of people in the state who are faced with paying money to be able to vote or paying money to put food on the table or pay their rent,” Volz said. “We just don’t think that is a morally right position for us to take.”
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