Posted on March 17, 2020

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

Joshua F.J. Inwood and Derek H. Alderman, The Conversation, March 16, 2020

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.


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.


{snip} 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.