The Cost of Voting

Last week I participated in a forum on the cost of voting, sponsored by the local chapters of the League of Women Voters and the NAACP, and also the Lifelong Learning Institute. My contribution centered around the fact that the history of voting in America is a history of exclusion.

In recent years scholars have recognized and analyzed voting as a problematic issue by examining voting laws. This analysis of the difficulty of voting is termed the “cost of voting.”

Several issues affect voter turnout, including race, income, education, and the competitiveness of races. Those are issues policymakers cannot control. However, other matters also affect participation, and most of these can be categorized under voting access laws.

Some of these laws are onerous, leading a research team to create a cost of voting index that measures, or ranks, the time and effort it takes to vote. This index ranks Oregon as the easiest state in which to vote.

In Oregon the state registers voters automatically, and the state mails out ballots to every voter several weeks before the election. On the other end of the spectrum is Mississippi, which is the most challenging state in which to vote. The state requires a photo ID, and it does not allow early voting, among other issues. Mississippi is followed in difficulty by Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, and Texas.

Voter access issues matter because states with greater ease of voting tend to have higher turnouts. If votes are to reflect the will of the people, then more people must vote.

Voting in the United States has centered around who could vote, and therefore who could not vote. Voting has always been difficult in America.

Thus, it cannot be true that voting is a sacred right of citizens in the U.S., as is often proclaimed. If it were, polling day would not be held on Tuesdays, when most people have to work and pay costs in time and sometimes money to vote.

In countries that hold voting dear, they make it easy to vote. Some have elections on weekends—both days–and others declare the voting day a holiday. Some countries have voting as a civic duty and require everyone to vote. And many penalize people who do not vote.

While forcing people to vote can be seen as an infringement on their civil liberties, e.g., a right not to vote, compulsory voting does support the idea of everyone voting. This is not the case in the United States. It is often hard to vote, and many people are excluded.

In the beginning, only white male property owners could vote. Later, white non-property owning men were permitted to vote. As women gained the right to vote, African American men and women were mostly prevented from voting.

The tools Southern states used were poll taxes, “literacy tests,” “grandfather clauses,” “white-only primaries,” and white nationalist terrorism. During the establishment of Jim Crow around 1900, Southern states held constitutional conventions to codify the exclusion of blacks from voting.

“There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter,” one segregationist leader said. “Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics … let the world know it just as it is.”

At the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1903, Delegate Carter Glass made a similar statement, “This plan [which included felony disenfranchisement laws] will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than five years.”

The Voting Rights Act was designed to protect against most of these practices; however, the Supreme Court gutted the Act in 1913. And some of the Jim Crow era laws still exist.

One of the reasons Virginia is ranked as the second most difficult state for voting is its law that excludes convicted ex-felons from voting. Only the governor can restore the right, and it must occur on a case-by-case basis, a painfully slow process.

Voting must not be a civic right we hold dear. Else we would include more of our citizens, and we would make it easier to do.