Poll Taxes and Voter IDs

The voter ID laws from Wisconsin and Texas are sure to reach the Supreme Court at some point, and so I’m trying to think through how the Twenty-Fourth Amendment (banning poll taxes in federal elections) might apply to these laws.

Let’s focus on folks who do not have an ID that a state considers valid.  (Maybe the person is elderly, for example, and never obtained a driver’s license.)  Suppose the state says that this person can get an ID for free, but to do so they have to go through some process.  If that process were onerous, then I think it fair to conclude that this would impose a poll tax.  The question is how burdensome is too burdensome.  Is the standard that if somebody could not vote as a result, then there is a violation?  Or do we judge this by some reasonableness standard?

One thing about the Twenty-Fourth Amendment that makes it different from other constitutional prohibitions is that it imposes a clear rule.  A $1 poll tax is just as unconstitutional as a $500 poll tax.  This may suggest that a conditional poll tax (in lieu of paying the fee for an ID, do this) should be assessed in a similar way black and white way.  In other words, a balancing test is not appropriate in this context.

Of course, this analysis does not cover a situation where someone has an ID and just forgets to bring it to the polls.  In that scenario, there is no poll tax and no constitutional violation–the issue falls under the Voting Rights Act.


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7 Responses

  1. Edward Still says:

    What is a poll tax? Is it only a payment TO the government as a prerequisite to voting? Can it include a payment to a different state for a document necessary to vote in the home-state? Can it include the cost of transportation to the office dispensing the document necessary to vote? Can it include the cost of photocopying the necessary-to-vote document so that it may be included with the absentee ballot? Can it include the cost of postage for mailing the absentee ballot? Can it include the lost wages of the voter while traveling to the one place in the county where one must obtain the necessary-to-vote document?

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    Per your reasoning, isn’t it a ‘poll tax’ to require voters to travel to the polls at their own expense, rather than providing them a limousine?

  3. Gerard Magliocca says:

    Er . . . no. The state is not collecting your travel fee.

    • Joe says:

      You spoke of free ids but some sort of “onerous process” …. if free voting that requires expensive travel expenses doesn’t count, what specifically do you mean? I get that costs might not be considered a “tax” but this is a bit unclear.

  4. Brett Bellmore says:

    But, if I’m born in Michigan, and need my birth certificate or other non-free Michigan docs to get S.C. ID, it isn’t S.C. charging me for them. How about this: You can’t charge someone to vote, but incidental expenses are ok.

    Oh, and.the state IS collecting a travel fee: Both gas and vehicle taxes.

  5. Joe says:

    “providing them a limousine”

    Why the exaggeration here? Let’s say there is a single polling place that for the average person would require a long commute and over $10 in carfare. Plus, perhaps, the voting is in the middle of the typical work day resulting in loss of pay.

    This very well might be considered a sort of “tax” on voting and discriminatory against poor people. This latter concern shows it is not simply a 24A issue. If the government provided a free bus pass — not a “limo” — it would be equitable. The government also should deal with the time issue. And, that is common practice — polling places aren’t so far away, hours are all day & a common rule is that you get a right to even to miss some work if necessary.

    I agree that merely because the state isn’t collecting a fee they should necessarily be off the hook. The net effect is a form of tax. I think there can be de minimis exceptions (though these days, you can register free online and free postage would be sensible). But, as explained by the district court and Justice Ginsburg, there are real monetary costs to get the ids in Texas. If paying a $1 tax is unconstitutional, why it should be okay to require, e.g., the fees necessary to obtain a birth certificate to vote is unclear.

    Talk about stamps and limos aside, there are real concerns here. If photo ids are necessary, and even a recent article that controversially argued there is a problem of non-citizens voting suggested id requirements are of limited value at best to solve real problems, the government should provide them for free & phase them in over a year or two to do so.

    • Brett Bellmore says:

      Is there really room for exageration, when limiting people who can get absentee balots without cause to “only” 28 days of early voting is attacked as “vote suppression”? I think not, we’re already well beyond the realm of parody.

      This isn’t about voting supression, on either side, in any sense to pioneers of voting rights would recognize it.

      Both the Democratic and Republican parties agree on one thing: The Democratic party’s base consists in large measure of people who are very poorly motivated to vote, and who will give up on voting if they encounter the slightest inconvenience. This is why Republicans really favor voter ID, because they think will *slightly* discourage a huge number of people who don’t really feel like voting anyway.

      And this is why Democrats oppose voter ID, instead of moving heaven and earth to get potential voters that ID: There aren’t enough people who want to vote, but lack the ID, to swing elections, but there are a lot of people who can be discouraged from voting (Democratic, of course!) by even the slight inconvenience of providing it.

      Not vote suppression, in any real sense. Convenience for the poorly motivated.