Breaking down the numbers on voter ID, wages, and poll taxes

Voter identification laws are a huge injustice on a number of scales, and I likely don’t need to go over any of them for you, but I got curious the other day about something: Many people have compared them to a de facto poll tax, and I thought it might be interesting to run the numbers. I do not dispute the poll tax claim for a minute, being full aware of how difficult it is to obtain ID when you belong to some marginalised groups, and how expensive it can be, but I was curious on a personal level about the costs associated with getting acceptable ID, and I thought you might be too, so, voila, this post.

Poll taxes were transparently aimed at keeping people of colour out of the polling booth, by requiring voters to pay a variable fee in order to vote. That fee was typically annual, and the practice lasted through the late 1960s in some states. It was only one tactic used to keep people of colour and low-income people (particularly those in both groups) from the polls, and it was undemocratic, unconstitutional, and vile. With the abolition of poll taxes and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, theoretically marginalised voters enjoy more access to what should be a fundamental right, but voter intimidation continues to be a systemic problem, and voter ID laws, implemented in the mid-2000s, are leading the charge when it comes to new and creative ways for limiting the right to vote.

I decided to use Texas as my test case, because it has a notoriously strict voter ID law that has somehow managed to pass judicial scrutiny. Under Texas law, voters must present one of seven allowable forms of ID to compare against voter registration records when they arrive at the polls. If poll workers verify a match, the voter can cast a regular ballot. If they deem the names ‘substantially similar,’ voters are allowed to cast a ballot with an affidavit (theoretically this could account for an issue like Sarah Q. Public being registered as Sara Q. Public). If voters can’t prove themselves to the satisfaction of poll workers, in a purely subjective process, they’re required to cast provisional ballots, with only six days to prove that they’re legally registered.

Voters must be able to present a Texas drivers license or state identification, voter identification card, handgun license, military identification, passport, or citizenship certificate with photograph. So how much do these documents cost to obtain? For simplicity’s sake, I’m not going to account for things like travel costs, time off work, and other matters associated with obtaining photo identifications: I’m looking just at the costs for the documents required, and pretty superficially at that, because it’s easy to get tangled in a big thorny web.

To get a drivers license or state ID, residents need either one primary identity verification or two secondary identity documents. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that our hypothetical voter has no primary IDs (existing drivers license, immigration documentation, passport, military ID), because she’s never sought out ID before. Birth certificates are the most common form of secondary ID, assuming that one was filed for her. Texas charges $23 for copies of birth certificates. She could also present a court order for change of name, which will generally cost around $230.

She may also use supporting identity documents in combination with one secondary document, and there are a range of options there, most of which also cost money: Pilots’ licenses, handgun licenses, vehicle registrations, foreign passports, insurance policies, and marriage licenses. About the only free things on the list are Social Security cards (can be replaced without charge), immunization records (which sometimes require a transcript fee), and prison-related identification.

A regular new license costs $25 for adults, while an ID card costs $16.

At a minimum, someone with primary identification (like a passport) would be paying $25 for an identification or license. More likely, applicants could potentially be spending upwards of $50 on documentation, plus the license fee. Maybe our applicant gets lucky: She can pay the $25 license fee, order a birth certificate for $23, produce her Social Security card, and provide her immunization record, for a total of $48 to obtain a valid drivers license, or $39 if she’s getting an ID card.

An election identification certificate is theoretically free, but has similar documentation requirements, forcing our hypothetical would-be voter to spend variable amounts of money depending on the documentation available to her. Advertising a ‘free’ certificate to all eligible voters may allow Texas to pretend that it doesn’t have a poll tax, but not charging for the certificate doesn’t mean it’s a cost-free endeavor.

To obtain a handgun license, voters need to pay a $140 fee plus fingerprinting ($10 or less), for a total of $150. Before they can apply for their licenses, however, they need to complete a training course, which can be of variable costs — one example is around $60. That’s $210.

Military identifications are, of course, free, but they do require one to, er, be in the military, which comes at its own costs, and it’s doubtful that anyone’s enlisting specifically to obtain valid voter identification. The entire Texan electorate cannot join the military (aside from the fact that many voters may be ineligible for service, it’s obviously impractical), and military service requires an extensive and very serious commitment. In some cases, the cost is the servicemember’s life.

Cost for a certificate of citizenship? $600, and that’s before the fees for supporting documentation including birth certificates, proof of residence, and other material, depending on the specifics of an applicant’s situation. This form is primarily used by people born abroad who are entitled to citizenship by nature of their parents’ citizenship status, or if the applicant ‘automatically became a U.S. citizen by operation of law after your birth but before you turned 18 years of age.’

A passport, meanwhile, costs $110 before supporting evidence (birth certificate or previous passport) and current identification (or ‘as much secondary identifying information as possible’).

At a minimum, applying for a document that will be accepted at the polls in Texas, with the exception of military ID, is going to hinge on paying application fees — from $0-$600, if you have all the supporting documentation. If you also need to gather proof of citizenship materials, you could be looking at hundreds more, depending on the complexity of your case.

The minimum wage in Texas is $7.25/hour. As with federal minimum wage, the state also has subminimum wage exemptions for disabled people based on ‘productivity impairments,’ guardianship status, and/or use of public benefits from public health services.

Make of this what you will.

Image: money, fedee pee, Flickr