Closing Polling Places Is the 21st Century’s Version of a Poll Tax

Yves here. We’re far from alone in calling out reductions in polling places in low-income and left-leaning areas, such as with high student populations, as vote suppression. Making people stand in long lines to vote is great way to make sure that some and likely many punt.

Another trick is moving a polling station at the last minute. Voters show up at the wrong spot and don’t feel they have the time slack to deal with going to the correct location. This is particularly true for those who show up before they go to work.

And it’s not as if Republicans are the only ones to suppress votes via these polling games. I heard of plenty of this sort of thing in Democrat-owned New York State. But I have to point out that Shelby County is a stone’s throw from where I live now.

By Joshua F.J. Inwood, Associate Professor of Geography Senior Research Associate in the Rock Ethics Institute, Pennsylvania State University and Derek H. Alderman, a Friend of The Conversation and Professor of Geography, University of Tennessee. Originally published at The Conversation

Delays and long lines at polling places during recent presidential primary elections – such as voters in Texas experienced – represent the latest version of decades-long policies that have sought to reduce the political power of African Americans in the U.S.

Following the Civil War and the extension of the vote to African Americans, state governments worked to block black people, as well as poor whites, from voting. One way they tried to accomplish this goal was through poll taxes – an amount of money each voter had to pay before being allowed to vote.

This practice was abolished by the passage of the 24th Amendment in 1964. Further protections for nonwhite voters came with the Voting Rights Act, which closely followed the Selma to Montgomery civil rights protest marches 55 years ago, in March 1965.

But in recent years, new barriers have gone up that, we believe, constitute a new type of poll tax on working people and minority voters. We are scholars of the American civil rights movement, including the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s voting rights efforts.

Unlike past poll taxes, the modern poll tax isn’t paid in money, but in time – how long it takes a person to get to a polling place, and, once there, how long it takes for them to actually cast their ballot.

Securing the Right to Vote

Almost immediately after the 15th Amendment gave African Americans the right to vote in 1870, state governments in the South passed a series of laws seeking to limit freed blacks’ voting power.

In addition, white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan used violence to intimidate African Americans from casting ballots.

This situation remained largely unchallenged for almost a century, until the 1960s, when the years of protest by the civil rights movement bore fruit in the abolition of poll taxes and federal protection of citizens’ voting rights.

President Lyndon Johnson signs the 24th Amendment, Feb. 4, 1964, abolishing poll taxes. Cecil W. Stoughton/Wikimedia Commons

Creating a New Poll Tax

Since the 1960s, there have been efforts by state and local officials to limit these hard-won victories.

The most recent chapter in this battle is the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which lifted restrictions on states that have historically blocked African Americans from voting, so state governments no longer need to seek federal approval before taking actions that might disproportionately harm black citizens’ right to vote.

Since the Shelby County decision, local election boards and state governments have closed over 1,600 polling places. That is approximately 8% of total voting locations within jurisdictions affected by the Shelby decision.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan independent study group started in 1957, found that states claimed polling-place closures were intended to save money, centralize voting operations, and complying with Americans with Disabilities Act – but really the goal was reducing voter turnout, particularly among minority voters who were historically disenfranchised. Using publicly available data, federal lawsuits brought against states and counties the report documents clear patterns of discrimination.

These closures, often done with little notice or public accountability, have occurred across communities of varying racial and demographic characteristics. What unites these places are the costs they impose on voting – from longer wait times to transportation obstacles – experienced disproportionately by voters of color, older voters, rural voters, voters with disabilities and poor working people in general.

In the 2016 election, for instance, scholars at UCLA found that voters in black neighborhoods waited, on average, 29% longer to vote than voters in predominantly white communities. The study found, “Even within the same county, voters in a hypothetical all-black precinct would wait 15 percent longer than voters in an all-white precinct.”

The study found voters in majority black precincts were far more likely to wait longer than half an hour to cast a ballot than voters in majority white precincts. A study of the 2012 election found that the voters who waited in long lines paid, collectively, over half a billion dollars in lost wages.

Considering Time

We believe that polling place closures represent a modern-day version of the poll tax.

In our view, access to polling places is a key element of citizens’ right to vote. People need fair and equitable access to places to vote – and determining what that means should include time and travel costs imposed on voters. This would expand traditional understandings of access to polling places beyond narrow legal opinions and take into account the full range of racial and class barriers to being able to participate in U.S. democracy.

Everybody’s time is valuable. But wait times have different effects depending upon a person’s socioeconomic status.

Working people calculate daily how much time, if any, they can afford to be away from their hourly wage job. Interminable waits at polling places may not fit in the schedule with a second or third job. Work supervisors may not excuse a late arrival or an absence. A working person may feel pressure to leave a polling place before casting a ballot, just to get to work on time and keep the money coming in.

Importantly, the Supreme Court’s Shelby County ruling did not invalidate all of the Voting Rights Act. Rather, it threw out the method by which the federal government could determine which areas of the country had policies that resulted in widespread voter disenfranchisement.

Congress could enact new legislation detailing a new method of making that determination, which would then restore federal oversight to states that create barriers to voting.

However because of our federal system where states have direct oversight of elections many of these decisions ultimately take place at the local and state level. As a result, election officials need to work in transparent ways with diverse communities to ensure that changes to voting locations do not disproportionately limit minority access. In addition, states could also ensure equal access to voting by creating, or expanding, early voting periods, and making it possible to vote by mail.

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  1. allan

    ProPublica on errors in the data that John Roberts used to support the majority opinion
    in Shelby County v. Holder:

    … America had changed, the court concluded. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, called the “extraordinary and unprecedented” requirements of the Voting Rights Act outdated and unfair.

    To illustrate his point, Roberts constructed a chart and published it in the body of the opinion. It compared voter registration rates for whites and blacks from 1965 and 2004 in the six southern states subject to special oversight. Roberts assembled his chart from data in congressional reports produced when lawmakers last renewed the act. The data displayed clearly that registration gaps between blacks and whites had shrunk dramatically.

    But some of the numbers Roberts included in his chart were wrong.

    The chart suggested that rates of registration for blacks in 2004 had matched or even outstripped those for whites. But Roberts used numbers that counted Hispanics as white, including many Hispanics who weren’t U.S. citizens and could not register to vote, which had the effect of inaccurately lowering the rate for white registration.

    There is no question great strides had been made in black voter registration in Georgia, which reached 64.2 percent in 2004. However, white registration was 68 percent, not 63.5 percent, as Roberts’ chart claimed. The rate of registration for whites exceeded that of blacks by 4 percent, rather than trailing it.

    Similarly, the chief justice’s chart asserted that in Virginia, the rate of registration for whites was just 10 percent higher than the rate of registration for blacks, a narrowing that would have reflected enormous progress. But the actual gap, removing erroneously counted Hispanics, was 14.2 percent.

    The argument Roberts was making — that the progress in southern states had been so substantial that there was no longer a need for the U.S. Department of Justice’s exacting oversight — might have remained persuasive. But the data he used as evidence was not true.

    How did Roberts arrive at his numbers?

    Roberts had relied on a report generated by the Senate Judiciary Committee [Chairman: Arlen Specter] from 2006. The committee’s staffers went to the right source: the U.S. Census Bureau’s post-election survey in 2004. The survey provides estimates of voter registration and turnout by state, gender, race and ethnicity, and citizenship.

    But the staffers went to the wrong set of numbers for white voters. They pulled voter registration rates for “white alone” to represent white voters, perhaps unaware [stop it, you’re killing me] of how the census bureau handles race and ethnicity.

    “White alone” means all people identified as being part of the white racial group. The census considers ethnicity separately from race. If a person identifies as Hispanic, they will also be counted as part of at least one racial group (i.e. white, black, Asian, Native American, other).

    Most Hispanics are counted as “white alone” under race. Which is why the Census Bureau provides separate numbers for the category “white non-Hispanic alone,” usually right next to the “white alone” figures.

    To those familiar with Census Bureau data, the difference is well understood. Researchers frequently convert the Hispanic-origin ethnicity into its own racial group when analyzing disparities. The Census Bureau itself does so in reports using its election survey data.

    Roberts’ chart, however, did not use generally accepted definitions of race.

    That’s because, as someone whose only job was to call balls and strikes,
    Roberts knew that race is merely a social construct.

    Narrator’s voice: remarkably, Roberts is now considered to be the swing vote
    at the ideological center of the Court.

  2. Jeff N

    where I live, they’ve changed some voting locations within the past 2 days.
    Polling place locations may change on Election Day, and voters are urged to search by address before voting on Election Day.”

  3. Billy

    Wasn’t this country founded on
    “No taxation without representation.”

    Maybe some people will say.
    “If I can’t vote, then I can’t pay taxes.”

  4. Arizona Slim

    Slim checking in from Tucson.

    According to one of my neighbors, our polling place is NOT at our neighborhood center. And, guess what, this is a historically black neighborhood.

    So, I took a walk over to the neighborhood center. That polling place is open and not busy. (Why am I not surprised?)

    As for my aforementioned neighbor, that individual went online to find where today’s polling place would be. Answer: The Pascua Yaqui village, which is several miles away, and not within easy walking distance like our neighborhood center.

    That, people, is misleading information. It’s not just a Maricopa County thing.

    BTW, I voted early for Bernie. Hope my vote counts.

      1. richard

        Yes, and making the excellent point that if you want to help prevent the spread of virus, you do exactly the opposite of what Maricopa is doing: you have more polling places to increase social distance.

  5. Tom Doak

    Who says they will count the vote anyway?

    I just looked at the results of the California primary. They are up to 70.5% of the votes tallied in the Los Angeles County Democrat primary.

    1. Carey

      C’mon now, it takes a long time to count those mcVotes, especially if they’re primarily for a non-establishment candidate, and it’s only been two weeks!

      what a country

  6. richard

    I think securing the vote beyond the easy reach of any f*&^ery should be the first priority of any reformer, assuming we get one elected. By accident, I guess.

  7. flora

    I’m glad Ohio R. gov Mike DeWine postponed the Ohio primary. It’s almost like governors care more about their citizens than the DC pols do.

    Postponing a primary vote that has hours’ long, crowded lines of people waiting to vote during a pandemic is a different issue that having a primary vote with suddenly closed polling stations in low income or minority or college student neighborhoods that acts to suppress the vote. My opinion of the Dem estab can’t sink much lower.

    No, scratch that. My opinion of the Dem estab has reached rock bottom. It cannot sink lower.

    1. Arizona Slim

      Things to do first thing tomorrow morning:

      1. Put the trash out. Global pandemic notwithstanding, Wednesday is trash pickup day in my neighborhood.

      2. #DemExit. This website makes it super easy:

      Buh-bye, Democrat Party. I’m done with you.

      1. Carey

        Will do it tomorrow- I’m in CA, and signed up temporarily as Dem™ to hopefully get my vote mcCounted.. heh!

        effing loserCrats


    2. allan

      Ed O’Keefe @edokeefe

      Some expectations setting from @JoeBiden campaign as people vote in the age of Coronavirus: In a memo, campaign says “with early vote and vote by mail, overall turnout will be roughly on pace for 2016 in Arizona and Florida and roughly on pace for 2018 in Illinois.” (1/)

      “We held elections during the Civil War, the 1918 flu pandemic, and World War II. We are confident that we can meet that same challenge today and continue to uphold the core functions and values of our democracy.” (2/)

      Just as criminally insane as Sean Hannity, Devin Nunes and Sheriff Clarke.
      Pro tip: if your primary supporters have a high CFR, you might lose the general.

        1. allan

          Case Fatality Rate.
          Biden is doing much better with older voters than Sanders,
          so by having them go to the polls so as to accumulate delegates,
          he’s ensuring that some unknown number of them won’t be around in November.

  8. Shiloh1

    They were all open by me. I walked in with my Ted Kz. scruffy look and 2 dogs and said, “is this where the bailout money is being doled out?”

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