Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian raised some eyebrows at a board of supervisors meeting earlier this month when he compared the postage required on the county’s vote-by-mail ballot to a poll tax.
“It’s 91 cents – strikingly close to the dollar that used to be charged as a poll tax back in the bad old days,” he said from the dais on May 5.
If you crunch the numbers and adjust for inflation, the postage payment is nowhere near the financial equivalent of the historic poll tax—a 19th Century law that kept minorities, particularly African Americans, from exercising their right to vote. Back then it cost on average one to two dollars to register to vote, though the price tag varied by state. That’s equivalent to $13 to $15 today.
But reasons to doubt Simitian’s comparison extend beyond the numbers, says Bertrall Ross, a voting rights expert at UC Berkeley’s School of Law.
“They both impose cost on voters in order to vote, but they’re very different, it seems to me, in terms of their origin and their object,” Ross told NBC Bay Area this week. “I think it’s dangerous to try to make too many, draw too many analogies to the poll tax because it has a danger of diluting the importance of the poll tax and what it actually meant.”
The object of the poll tax was to keep poor and minority groups away from the polls, Ross said. It was inherently discriminatory, he added, which is much different from the Santa Clara County postage policy.
Joe Simitian agrees that vote by mail postage isn’t meant to target poor and minority groups specifically, but he does worry that the cost could create a burden on voters, especially the ten percent of county residents who live at or below the poverty line.
“Look, I think there’s a fundamental question here,” he said. “Do we want to charge people when they exercise their right to vote? I think the answer to that question is and should be no.”
Simitian has reason to be concerned about mail-in ballots. Nearly 70 percent of voters in Santa Clara County vote by mail. In fact, some precincts in the county are vote-by-mail only, though the county Registrar of Voters Office told NBC Bay Area that those mandated to vote by mail receive a ballot with pre-paid postage.
In the last national election, voter turnout was the lowest it has been since World War II, and the turnout was similar in California. As a result, Simitian says Santa Clara County is encouraging vote-by-mail to its population because of the convenience attached to the process. But should it come at a cost at all? Simitian says no.
“Without the participation of the voting public, we don’t have a real democracy,” he said. “And we start to charge people for exercising their right to vote? You’re headed in the wrong direction in a serious way.”
On that point, Bertrall Ross agrees.
“There’s other arguments that could be put forth in terms of, let’s try to make it as easy for people to vote as possible, and one way to do that would be to eliminate this postage requirement,” he said. “But equating it to the poll tax, I think, is a political move that if you look at the historical context doesn’t really match up.”