How Conservatives Justify Poll Taxes

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DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 6: U.S. citizens wait in a long line to vote in the presidential election at Community House November 6, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan. The race between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican nominee former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney remains tight as Americans head to the polls to cast their ballots. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

During the Obama era, the Republican Party has made the modern revival of the poll tax a point of party dogma. Direct poll taxes have been illegal for 50 years, but the GOP has discovered a workaround. They have passed laws requiring photo identification, forcing prospective voters who lack them, who are disproportionately Democratic and nonwhite, to undergo the extra time and inconvenience of acquiring them. They have likewise fought to reduce early voting hours on nights and weekends, thereby making it harder for wage workers and single parents, who have less flexibility at work and in their child care, to cast a ballot.

The effect of all these policies is identical to a poll tax. (Indeed, a study found that the cost they impose is considerably greater than existing poll taxes at the time they were banned.) It imposes burdens of money and time upon prospective voters, which are more easily borne by the rich and middle-class, thereby weeding out less motivated voters. Voting restrictions are usually enacted by Republican-controlled states with close political balances, where the small reduction in turnout it produces among Democratic-leaning constituencies is potentially decisive in a close race.

The simple logic of supply and demand suggests that if you raise the cost of a good, the demand for it will fall. Requiring voters to spend time and money obtaining new papers and cards as a condition of voting will axiomatically lead to fewer of them voting.

It is precisely because the effect is so obvious that conservatives must labor so strenuously to deny it. National Review editor Rich Lowry, writing in Politico, scoffs at arguments against the Republican poll tax agenda. Lowry offers three arguments for voter identification laws. The first is that we can’t prove that they reduce voting (“its effect can’t reliably be detected by the tools of social science”).

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

It is indeed difficult to prove the impact of vote restrictions, because we cannot run natural experiments. If you could hold an election with vote restrictions in place, and then go back in time and hold it again without them, you could reliably measure the effect. In real life, no two elections are ever identical, which makes it impossible to “reliably” pinpoint the magnitude of the impact.

The Government Accountability Office surveyed ten studies of the effects of voter-identification laws, only four of which found decreases in turnout. Lowry trumpets this finding. The GAO also studied the impact of vote restrictions in Kansas and Tennessee and found significant reductions in the African-American vote. Lowry says that the Republicans in those states “dispute the methodology,” and takes their side. What the dispute over methodology really shows is that the impact of one change in voting laws is extremely hard to prove. A natural response would be to fall back on the intuitive premise that raising the cost of voting reduces voting. But conservatives seem reluctant to apply their normal beliefs in markets to this question.

Lowry suggests that a better measure of the effect of voter-identification laws is “How many voters are showing up to vote, only to realize that they have been denied their rights by the ID requirement?” Not many, it turns out, prompting Lowry to sneer:

That means in Kansas and Tennessee, altogether about 1,000 ballots weren’t counted (and perhaps many of them for good reason), out of roughly 3.5 million cast. There you have it ladies and gentlemen, voter suppression! It is of such stuff that Jim Crow was made.

Is it possible that some of the prospective voters who lacked the requisite identification did not show up at the polls at all? Lowry does not consider the possibility.

Lowry’s final argument compares voting rights to the right to obtain a gun, stay at a hotel, and purchase a marriage license. “No one goes around complaining that these requirements infringe on the rights of minorities to own a firearm, get married, or avail themselves of public accommodations,” he argues.

But these other activities confer a direct and tangible benefit: You get a gun or a spouse or a hotel room. People are more willing to endure cost and inconvenience if they get something out of it in return. Voting does not offer concrete benefits. It is an abstract expression of civic engagement. There’s a limit to the inconvenience and cost a person will undergo to do it, especially when their life is already stressed. People make marginal decisions about voting all the time, balancing their generalized desire to fulfill a civic duty against the hard demands of a day-to-day schedule. The entire purpose of the new poll taxes are to tilt that calculus away from voting for a small but hopefully decisive bloc.

It is revealing that Lowry, like most conservative defenders of modern poll taxes, does not defend the Republican Party’s fervor for reducing early and weekend voting. It is easier to defend voter identification laws independently as a necessary inconvenience to ward off the mostly theoretical problem of voter impersonation. Restrictions on early voting cannot be defended in these terms. And if you consider them together, it makes it all too obvious that both these things serve the identical purpose of raising the inconvenience of voting for a small chunk of Democratic voters.

There is something even more revealing about Lowry’s comparison between voting and other licenses: It proves too much. To drive home the equation, Lowry suggests that marriage, gun ownership, and staying in a hotel are “important rights,” just like voting. But those are also rights that you have to pay for with money. That is to say, if voting is simply a right on par with buying a gun or renting a hotel room, why should one cost money and the other be free? Why should people have to pay the government directly for marriage or gun licenses, and get to vote for free?

Lowry repeatedly scoffs at the idea that vote restrictions amount to a poll tax. But the poll tax is precisely what he is advocating.