Tuesday, May 23, 2017

In the US, Voting is Not for Poor People

In 2016, I voted at my kitchen table. I made a mug of tea, splashed a small amount of bourbon into it, and sat, by low light, and bubbled in the seemingly endless series of questions about taxes, transit, the minimum wage, and yes, the next President of the United States.

I skimmed through my phone, Googling various initiatives and candidates at my leisure, taking a break to snap an Instagram photo and pet my dog.

When I was finished, I neatly folded the ballot itself, placed it inside the privacy envelope, signed the document where I was prompted to sign, put a stamp on it, and then skipped across the street to plop it into the blue mailbox. Total cost: Whatever a stamp costs. I don’t remember.

Voting by mail is all I’ve ever known; before I was a voter in Washington, I was a voter in Oregon. I have a vague memory of my mother going to my elementary school gym to cast a ballot at one point, but aside from that, I’ve never had an experience with a polling place.

Which also means I’ve never had to take time off work to vote. I’ve never had to figure out a series of connecting buses or trains to vote. I’ve never had to wait in line or worry that there wouldn’t be materials in my native language available when I got to the booth. I’ve never had to produce a photo ID to vote, or worry that when I arrived at the polling place, I’d have been purged from the ranks.

In short: Voting has always been easy for me—and it’s remarkable that, in this, the year 2017, it’s not so easy for everyone else, even though it definitely could be.

Washington voters often complain about the need for stamps on ballots here, and in a lot of ways, they’re correct to do so; just about every year, we collectively try to determine whether or not a stamp is technically a poll tax, if you need a stamp, or whether it’s worth the risk to try mailing it without. A lot of ballots get returned without postage. And while stamps may not break the bank for a lot of us, they do require a person to purchase something in order to vote by mail.

Ballot boxes which don’t require a stamp are scattered throughout the region and in the week leading up to an election, it’s common to see a line of families and individuals, each stopping to take a photo of themselves as they slip the envelope into the big metal box.

Democrats in the legislature have submitted proposals to pay for postage in order to reduce the barrier to voting even further. The estimated cost is fairly low (about $2.7M over two years) and, in counties where paid postage has been tried, it’s increased voter turnout noticeably.

But while voters grapple over 49 cents in Washington, the rest of the nation is dealing with the real cost of voter suppression. In addition to, you know, the election of the 45th President—who promptly attacked immigrants, refugees, the lowest-earners, and anyone with any kind of ailment; who has proven to be entirely untrustworthy with matters of national security, and who’s threatened to undermine the rule of law—the fallout of voter suppression is far-reaching.

In cities and counties and parishes and townships across the country, voter numbers are slipping and falling as more and more people give up on participating in our democracy—in large part because laws and policies and enforcements have made it clear to them that their votes don’t count, aren’t wanted, or aren’t important.

Despite the promise of the United States—this paragon of democracy—we have ruthlessly low voter turnout. On purpose.

Much of this is strictly racial; at least one recent voter suppression effort was determined to have targeted Black voters with “almost surgical precision.” Gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and other age-old techniques for keeping People of Color away from the ballot have proven successful for decades.

But many of the barriers to voting—barriers that aren’t so egregious, aren’t so specific, aren’t so surgical—in almost every state in the union also impact poor folks of other races. In fact, the very nature of in-person voting disproportionately benefits white-collar workers and the very wealthy.

Let’s do the math:

First, you have to factor in the cost of taking as much as an entire day off work. Ironically, voting on a Tuesday in November was originally determined because it was the easiest for workers to get off, not completely inconvenient as it is now. NPR’s Domenico Monanaro explains:
In order to understand the day chosen, you need to understand 19th century America. Most Americans were farmers, devoutly Christian and needed time to travel, because roads weren’t paved, and polling locations weren’t widespread like today. 
Sundays were out because of church. People had to get to the county seat to vote, and automobiles weren’t an option — they weren’t a factor until the early 20th century. The Interstate Highway System wasn’t authorized until the mid-1950s. 
As for why November — spring was planting season, summer was taken up with working the fields and tending the crops, but by November, the fall harvest was over. And in most of the country, the weather was still mild enough to permit travel over those unpaved roads.
So, while the time and day of voting was initially built around the working person, it’s now a way to keep workers away from the polls. Assuming you make just over the federal minimum wage—let’s say $8 per hour—and you can’t take a sick day to vote (which you probably can’t in a lot of areas) your day of voting will cost you upwards of $64.

Even if you don’t work, but you’ve got underage kids who won’t be in school on Tuesday, you’ll probably need childcare; waiting for five to seven hours in a line is going to require a LOT of coloring books. So either way, taking a full day off is probably a loss of cash upfront; the average cost for an hour of childcare hovers around $10–20, meaning dropping $70–100 just to stand in the cold without a toddle to juggle.

by Hanna Brooks Olsen, Medium | Read more:
Image: Wikimedia Commons