Barriers to Access: Low-Income Voters
Updated: Oct 28, 2021
Happy Friday! Welcome back to the VFP blog-- we’re glad to see you! Today, we’ll be sharing the final installment of our series on barriers to voting access. In previous posts, we covered barriers faced by voters with disabilities, Native voters, older voters, younger voters, rural voters, and new American voters. We’ll be ending our series with a look at the barriers to the ballot box faced by low-income and poor Americans.
(The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, center, and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, third from right, during a Poor People’s Campaign rally in 2018. Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press)
According to the Poor People’s Campaign, 140 million Americans - nearly half the country - were poor or low-income before the start of the pandemic in 2020 (they consider those living at or below 200% of the poverty line to be poor or low-income). That’s a whole lot of people who hold a whole lot of electoral power. But that power isn’t being used like it could be: low-income Americans continue to vote at a rate about 20% lower than higher income voters. Let’s get into a few reasons why:
With voter ID requirements on the rise across the country, one of the main barriers to voting for low-income voters continues to be the cost of obtaining a valid photo identification. A report by the Government Accountability Office found that the process of obtaining a legal ID can cost between $5 and $58, depending on the state. And, while most states offer “free” IDs for voting, the costs associated with getting the necessary documents (birth certificates, etc.) average between $75 and $175. “Free”: yeah, right.
All of those costs come on top of the cost in wages lost when taking time off of work to obtain identification (a process that typically takes longer in low-income areas, especially those without ready access to transportation) and to wait in line at a polling place. Studies have shown that voters in low-income areas face longer wait times and are more likely to face waits of an hour or more. When faced with the choice between voting and putting food on the table, it’s no surprise that low-income Americans often choose the latter.
But of course, the problems don’t stop there. For poor and low-income voters that do manage to get registered and access their polling place, there’s the issue of moving.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, low income families are less likely to be homeowners and more likely to move frequently than their more affluent counterparts. But voters are required to re-register to vote every time they change their address. Failing to do so can easily result in a voter being “purged” from the voter rolls, leaving them unable to cast a ballot when Election Day rolls around.
The people who study these kinds of things for a living have described re-registration requirements as “the key stumbling block in the trip to the polls” (if you know any academics, you know this is very strong language for them). To make matters worse, the rules for re-registration vary by state and are rarely enforced uniformly, making the process confusing for both voters and election officials.
What We Can Do
If you’ve been following along with this series, you know where this is headed.
Election reforms like same-day and automatic voter registration would make voting easier and more equitable for all Americans.
One thing that would address both problems? The For the People Act. This week, state lawmakers from across the country are rallying in Washington to encourage action on voting rights legislation, and you can express your support for the measure (and encourage your members of congress to join them!) by calling the U.S. Capitol at (202) 224-3121.
Thanks for reading, y’all! Talk soon.
“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” – James Baldwin