Should the Poor Be Allowed to Vote?

Voter-ID laws are part of a hoary American tradition holding that people who aren't economically independent can't make reasoned political choices.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

If Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters succeed in booting C.Y. Leung from power, the city’s unelected chief executive should consider coming to the United States. He might fit in well in the Republican Party.

In an interview Monday with The New York Times and other foreign newspapers, Leung explained that Beijing cannot permit the direct election of Hong Kong’s leaders because doing so would empower “the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month.” Leung instead defended the current plan to have a committee of roughly 1,200 eminent citizens vet potential contenders because doing so, in the Times’ words, “would insulate candidates from popular pressure to create a welfare state, and would allow the city government to follow more business-friendly policies.”

If that sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Leung’s views about the proper relationship between democracy and economic policy represent a more extreme version of the views supported by many in today’s GOP.

Start with Mitt Romney. In 2012, at a fundraiser with ultra-wealthy donors, the Republican nominee famously denigrated the “47 percent” of Americans who “believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing”—to a welfare state. Because these self-appointed “victims” were voting in order to get things from government, Romney argued, their motives were inferior to the potential Romney voters who “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

In distinguishing between Americans whose economic independence permits them to make reasoned political choices and those who because of their poverty cannot, Romney was channeling a hoary American tradition. In 1776, John Adams argued that men (let alone women) “who are wholly destitute of Property” were “too dependent upon other Men to have a Will of their own.” In 1800, only three states allowed property-less white men to vote. For most of the 20th century, southern states imposed “poll taxes” that effectively barred not only African Americans from voting but some poor whites as well.

Romney didn’t suggest that the 47 percent be denied the right to vote, of course. But other Republicans have flirted with the idea. In 2010, Tea Party Nation President Judson Phillips observed that “The Founding Fathers … put certain restrictions on who gets the right to vote … one of those was you had to be a property owner. And that makes a lot of sense, because if you’re a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community.” In 2011, Iowa Representative Steve King made a similar observation, noting approvingly, “There was a time in American history when you had to be a male property owner in order to vote. The reason for that was, because [the Founding Fathers] wanted the people who voted—that set the public policy, that decided on the taxes and the spending—to have some skin in the game. Now we have data out there that shows that 47 percent of American households don’t pay taxes … But many of them are voting. And when they vote, they vote for more government benefits.” In 2012, Florida House candidate Ted Yoho remarked, “I’ve had some radical ideas about voting and it’s probably not a good time to tell them, but you used to have to be a property owner to vote.” Yoho went on to win the election.

Philips, King, and Yoho are outliers. Most prominent Republicans would never propose that poor people be denied the franchise. But they support policies that do just that. When GOP legislatures make it harder to vote—either by restricting early voting, limiting the hours that polls remain open, requiring voter identification or disenfranchising ex-felons—the press usually focuses on the disproportionate impact on racial minorities and Democrats. But the most profound impact may be on the poor.

Voter-identification laws, in particular, act as new form of poll tax. After Texas passed its voter-ID law, a study found that Texans who earned less than $20,000 per year were more than 10 times more likely to lack the necessary identification than Texans who earned more than $150,000. On the surface, this discrepancy might seem possible to remedy, since courts have generally demanded that the states that require voter identification provide some form of ID for free. But there’s a catch. Acquiring that free ID requires showing another form of identification—and those cost money. In the states with voter-ID laws, notes a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, “Birth certificates can cost between $8 and $25. Marriage licenses, required for married women whose birth certificates include a maiden name, can cost between $8 and $20. By comparison, the notorious poll tax—outlawed during the civil rights era—cost $10.64 in current dollars.”

To make matters worse, roughly half a million people without access to a car live more than 10 miles from the nearest office that regularly issues IDs. And the states that require IDs, which just happen to be mostly in the south, also just happen to have some of the worst public transportation in the country.

Not surprisingly, a 2007 study by researchers at Washington University and Cal Tech found that, “registered voters with low levels of educational attainment or lower levels of income are less likely to vote the more restrictive the voter identification regime.” Barring former felons from voting has an even more dramatic impact on the poor, since almost half of state prison inmates earned less than $10,000 in the year before their incarceration.

Obviously, the United States is not Hong Kong. But there’s a reason some of the city’s demonstrators have adopted the label “Occupy.” Like the Americans who assembled in Zuccotti Park in 2011, they are fighting a system in which political exclusion and economic exclusion reinforce each other. Hong Kong’s chief oligarch is named C.Y. Leung. But here in the U.S., we have ours too.