Why The F*** Did I Just Pay to Vote?

John O. Sullivan

“a state violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution whenever it makes the affluence of the voter or payment of any fee an electoral standard. Voter qualifications have no relation to wealth.”

-Excerpt of Majority Decision, Harper v Virginia State Board of Elections

Disclaimer: I am angry and this is largely (entirely) an opinion piece with little (no) empirical anything.

Okay, so I didn’t EXACTLY have to pay to vote.

But I kind of did.

And I’m enraged about it.

I live in Maryland. Several days ago, I requested an absentee ballot. It was sent to me via mail promptly and directly, and arrived yesterday, to my shock. I went ahead and filled it out (I’ve already made up my mind about who to vote for) and during my lunch break at work, went to take it to the post office. The post office is only about 100 yards from my office, so I went during my lunch break. I thought about grabbing my wallet, but I didn’t. Why would I need it? The envelope said “extra postage MAY be required, but it was only two pages of ballot. Besides it was staying in state, in fact it was only travelling 113 miles (Maryland is not a large state). That warning about extra postage is probably for people sending from abroad, right?

Wrong.

I arrived at the post office, they weighed my envelope, and announced it would be 68 cents. I said “its a ballot, how is it not postage paid?” They literally laughed in my face, so ludicrous was the idea to them. I stormed out, enraged, retreated to my office to retrieve a single dollar bill, and returned to submit my vote for the price of 68 cents.

Yes, I realize it was only 68 cents.

Yes, I realize I wasn’t literally paying to vote, I was paying for the use of the postal service.

Yes, I realize the Post Office still has to pay postal workers to sort and transport my ballot.

Yes, I realize in some counties in Maryland that I can submit my ballot electronically for free.

I am still outraged.

First of all, what if I literally didn’t have the 68 cents. I’m saying, what if I ACTUALLY didn’t have 68 cents. 25 million Americans live hand to mouth, spending the entirety of their paycheck every week and with little to no savings. 68 cents might not be too steep a barrier for them, but what of the 1.5 million Americans live in what is defined as “extreme poverty,” or less than $2 a day. For those people, 68 cents would be entirely disqualifying. These 1.5 million voters would have been enough to swing the election in 2000, 1968, and 1960, and nearly enough to do the same in 1976. While it is unlikely that all of these 1.5 million people would have all voted for the same person, or even voted at all, it is still a fact that a sizable number of people may be disenfranchised by having to pay for absentee ballots.

Every other part of the registration and voting process is free for that exact reason. I don’t have to pay 68 cents if I go to vote at the precinct. The Board of Elections of Baltimore County didn’t have to put 68 exacting cents worth of stamps on the envelope to send me the blank ballot. I shouldn’t have to pay 68 cents to send it back as an absentee. Again returning back to the main point of this paragraph, what if I ACTUALLY didn’t have 68 cents to spend just then. A person can walk to a polling station, but not when they’re 113 miles away from their polling station. So, referring back to the quote that led this rampage-like blog post. It is my belief that a 68 cent cost to send and process my ballot (BY A FEDERAL AGENCY NO LESS) is both a payment of a fee of an electoral standard, and a qualification with relation to wealth of the voter. It is a small fee, and a small qualification, but a fee and qualification all the same. If a person is not near their home and literally didn’t have 68 cents, that small fee would be prohibitive. The point of both the 14th amendment and our general guiding democratic principles is that everyone is allotted a vote, and only one vote. That vote, on principle, should not be restricted for any reason, be it gender, sex, religion, race, ethnicity, or wealth. And a 68 cent barrier is still a restriction by name.

Ultimately, we live in a country where 60% of the eligible population turn out to vote in a good year. We should be making it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to vote. In 2004, the voting eligible population (VEP) was 8.5% lower than the voting-age poulation (VAP), meaing 8.5% of people in the country who are old enough to vote, can’t, be they one of the 3.9 million people prohibited from voting due to felon or ex-felon status, or be they non-citizens, or be they people who recently moved.

On top of that, we have 1.5 million people possibly prohibited from voting by having to pay postage on their ballot. In a nation who counts “one person, one vote” among their guiding principles, it illogical to add impediments to voting when we as a nation should construe our laws so as to make it as easy as possible to vote.

Were I a weaker, less civically-minded man, I may have never come back to mail my ballot. Were I a poorer, less privileged man, I may simply not have had the 68 cents to fulfill my civic right/responsibility to vote. A coworker said to me on my return to the office “I mean, voting is a privilege.” It IS a privilege, and by that, I mean it is an honor and a great responsibility to help choose my country’s leaders. But legally speaking, it is a right. Election day should be a national holiday. People should get paid time off to vote. Yes, convicted felons should be allowed to vote. We should seriously consider lowering the voting age to 16. And in a world where US Senators are allowed to send as much non-campaign related mail as they want to whomever they want, absentee ballots should come postage paid, damnit.

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