page updated on August 24, 2017

How Does the US Voting System Disenfranchise the Poor?

On September 29, 2014, the US Supreme Court blocked early voting in Ohio. Like most states in the country, voting happens on specific days during specific hours at specific places. If you have the time and the resources to get to those places during those hours, you can vote.

While a tenet of American democracy is that every white landowning male citizen over 18 can vote, the logistics of many state-run voting systems make it difficult for every citizen to cast a vote.

This is not a healthy development in a democratic society.

One might speculate that restricting voting to a few hours on a specific day has its roots in an agrarian society where, after the harvest is over, you could reasonably expect all landowning white males to congregate once a year to handle the business of representative democracy. Yet most eligible voters may not find themselves in that position in the 21st century.

Wasted Time is a Tax on the Poor

Being poor means that you don't have the luxury of spending a little money to save a lot of time. If you're poor—especially working poor—you probably have to:

  • Spend time waiting for public transit rather than driving when you need to
  • Spend time filling out paperwork to begin or continue assistance
  • Work the hours you're scheduled, even if that schedule changes week to week, because you don't have a 9-5 job
  • Work overtime to make extra money to pay for unexpected bills
  • Take off time to deal with a sick or misbehaving kid

There are a thousand little microaggressions to handle in a normal workweek. While a white-collar schedule may be amenable to taking a lunch hour to stroll to the polling place and check back into work a little bit later, being on salary and no one really watching the timeclock to the minute, someone who relies on being at work every time she's scheduled so as to put food on the table every day doesn't have that luxury.

Voting is a right. Women, non-white men, people who don't own land—all of these groups fought for the right to vote. Denying anyone that right because the logistics are just too difficult to manage is unamerican at best.

Discouragement is Disenfranchisement

Some will complain that voter turnout among minority groups (non-white, poor, homeless) demonstrates a lack of democratic engagement. This may be a case of putting the cart before the horse.

If you were stymied in your attempt to participate at every turn: elections held during the least convenient time in an inconvenient place which costs you real money and career opportunities to vote and if you were risked being turned away because voting hours were over despite there still being a line around the block, how often would you feel like even trying to bother again?

Some will complain that the pictures of first-time voters in liberated dictatorship regimes, accompanied by the stories of walking for hours through hostile conditions, proves that even historically disenfranchised voters are capable of taking on sacrifices to cast ballots, and why are poor, non-white voters in America complaining that they don't have it even quite so bad? Yet America made the argument that poll taxes and Jim Crow laws were necessary once upon a time too, and no one's seriously suggesting that privileged white landowning males who live in the suburbs and get paid time off to vote should have to pass a civics pop quiz (can you name all nine members of the Supreme Court, plus the years they took office?) to enter the voting booth.

If you stop and think about it honestly, you might understand why it's just not worth bothering, especially when the political system is dominated by people actively hostile to improving your way of life. (Look; when attempts to make voting less inconvenient for you are met by loud squeals that you're probably going to cast fraudulent ballots, you know the system isn't really interested in your opinion.)

Reducing Turnout is As Good As Getting More Votes

Conventional political wisdom argues that voter participation in an off-year election is dominated by politically active voters. That sounds like a truism, but it's more insightful than that. The greater the perceived value of a vote, the more people will take the time to vote. That's why unopposed races get few votes while presidential votes and controversial voter initiatives get many votes.

This tendency leads some political agents to put special races on off-year ballots, where they hope that only the motivated voters will vote, and vote for or against their issue.

If you're deeply cynical, you can easily come up with examples of cities and counties calling special elections at odd times for or against controversial measures, such as tax increases. Technically, there was a vote and it passed, but did everyone really get a chance to weigh in on an important issue?

If this is the case for simple measures such as municipal bond issues (and it is), imagine the lengths to which an untrustworthy political apparatus might go to sway a winner-take-all presidential election in a swing state. Suddenly efforts to purge voter rolls or reduce the number of polling places takes on sinister casts. After all, who'll complain when the disenfranchised (who have little time to complain) are further disadvantaged?

Can US Voting Encourage More Participation?

Leave aside the difficulties of fair voting systems; that's a discussion for a different time. Is it possible to create structures in which the poor are not so systemically disenfranchised?


Ohio's early voting may not be the right system, but it at least expands access to voting outside a narrow window of time on a specific day. Oregon's vote by mail system gives voters two weeks to examine the voter's guide and mail their ballots (though it also allows delivery of ballots to drop boxes on voting day). Absentee ballots have long been available for voters who wish to avail themselves of them, and military members deployed oversees have alternate mechanisms to vote early.

Vote by mail helps registered voters with mailing addresses. Not every person eligible to vote is registered (and expanding DMV registration to include the option to register to vote only helps those people who pursue driver licenses) and not every person eligible to vote has a stable mailing address. These problems can be addressed. They're more difficult to solve than the issues of disenfranchising logistics, but to the extent that disenfranchisement is a series interrelated of microaggressions, removing them will gradually begin to have the desired effect.

Dealing with the problem of untrustworthy political actors deliberately seeking disenfranchisement (the party bosses behind the Tea Party come to mind) will take more work altogether. The business of pruning politics to encourage the fruit of healthy and inclusive democracy will never end. Yet recognizing that modern American democracy has structures which are relics of a bygone age and which exclude millions of eligible voters for no good reason may suggest ways to expand the logistics of voting.

Expanding access to the structures of the act of voting itself is a small but important step.