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Spin Control: Wet behind the ears on poll tax claim

OLYMPIA – A wise old pol once explained why changing the election system is difficult: The people who must agree to make the change all got their jobs through the current system; and having won at least one election, they all consider themselves experts in how the system should work.

That may explain why legislators each year consider a myriad of election changes, but rarely approve any of substance. Last week found various committees in the midst of such discussions, considering whether counties should be required to put out more drop boxes, the deadline for ballots to arrive in the mail should be moved up, or the state should change the way it divvies up its Electoral College votes. Too early to tell how most will fare, but all face a bumpy road.

One change being discussed would require the state or counties to pay the postage to return the ballots mailed out to Washington’s 3 million-plus voters. One can make a good cost-to-benefit argument about such an expense compared to the convenience to voters.

Or one could make a very bad argument, as Lucas Barash-David, a lobbyist for the Associated Students of the University of Washington, did while trying to convince legislators to cover the ballot postage as a way to boost student voting. Many like him, Barash-David explained, communicate by text, email or phone, but don’t write letters. So they don’t use stamps and would have trouble securing one. “I don’t even know where the post office is,” he said.

This seemed a shocking revelation for a member of a generation raised with laptops and cellphones at the ready, many of whom have a smartphone that will tell them the location of the nearest post office, and possibly give them turn-by-turn directions to it.

Only slightly less shocking was the suggestion from another student that the cost of postage was a barrier to voting akin to a poll tax. It’s an oft-repeated criticism of the mail-in ballot system, but repetition doesn’t make it right. It shows either a lack of understanding of that tax, or perhaps in the case of the students, inattention the day it was discussed in American History 101.

Until it was ruled unconstitutional in 1966, the poll tax was a system in the Deep South designed to do something indirectly that white segregationists couldn’t do directly: keep poor, mainly black, residents from casting ballots and somehow mucking up the powers that be. Voters paid an amount that Southern states argued was nominal and merely a way of covering the cost of elections. And for decades, they got away with it.

The cost of a stamp is nominal, too, but relatively speaking it doesn’t measure up to the poll tax.

When the U.S. Supreme Court first considered, and upheld, a poll tax case in 1937, that fee in Arkansas was $1. When a later court struck it down permanently in 1966, the tax in Virginia was $1.50. It’s not just the fact that the cost of a stamp is about half to a third of those taxes that makes the comparison fail.

Using the cost of gasoline as the most easily understood price adjustor, consider that 1 gallon cost 10 cents in 1937, so that Arkansas poll tax was equal to 10 gallons of gas. With gas going for about $3.50 now, a stamp would have to cost $35 to be comparable to the Arkansas tax.

By 1966, gas was about 32 cents a gallon, so the struck-down Virginia tax would be worth less, slightly over $7, but still quite a bit more than the cost of that stamp – despite the fact that the U.S. Postal Service jacked up the price a whole penny last month.

But the poll tax wasn’t just onerous because a person had to pay this year’s tax to vote in this year’s elections. Cash-poor sharecroppers, white or black, who skipped paying the tax in years they had no reason to cast a ballot, had to pay back taxes in a year they wanted to vote, so the disincentive to vote would mount up.

And there was no way around the poll tax if you wanted to vote. If you don’t have a stamp, you can deposit your “mail-in” ballot for free at a drop box. Don’t know where the drop box is? There’s an app for that.

So, no, rummaging around in your desk drawer for a stamp or scrounging up a couple of quarters to buy one off your roommate is not the same as having to pay the poll tax. One is a slight inconvenience; the other is a systematic way to guarantee that folks with money are more likely to vote than folks without money.

Spin Control, a weekly column by Olympia reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items, reader comments and videos at spincontrol.

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