The Price of Voting

As college students across the country ponder casting votes in primaries this week, the last thing we need is more reasons to keep them away from the polls. As it is, the number of college voters hovers around 50 percent, and this at a time when youth activism seems to be all the hype. While numerous theories attempt to account for this low number—from apathy to complacency to ignorance—the voting process itself may very well be discouraging, and even disenfranchising, a number of young voters.

The most outrageous roadblock to youth voting is that many college students’ votes come at an unfair price—a postage price to be exact. With the exception of residents of four states, students living outside of their registered district—many college students fall under this category—will be forced to pay postage on their absentee ballots. Only Hawaii, Minnesota, Nevada and West Virginia pay the return address for an absentee ballot.
 
So what’s the problem with the systems in the other 46 states? Confusion and ambiguity plague the process. The price of postage varies from state to state, and is even inconsistent within states. The postage required for an absentee ballot in Los Angles, for example, costs 41 cents, whereas in some counties in Florida, returning the ballot by mail costs $1.14. Voting officials place the burden of determining and correctly placing postage for these ballots on students who, living in an age when young people almost never visit the post office, may not even know the price of a stamp. Indeed, in talking to multiple fellow students this week, it is clear that many believe first-class postage still costs 39 cents.

Yet, the biggest problem is that many of these ballots do not even mention how much postage is needed in the first place. Some simply read, “Please note: Extra postage may be needed when mailing completed absentee ballots,” while others say nothing at all. Many of the Web sites for these counties also provide no information. The 800 number for the Los Angeles County Registrar, for example, was disconnected, and calls to the local number given were unanswered. Only upon e-mailing the office and waiting three days was this voter able to find out the price of postage, which turned out to be the standard 41 cents.

And while a handful of counties around the country recognize this problem and will accept an absentee ballot even if postage is not paid in its entirety, the vast majority will not. Many absentee voters may be getting their ballots sent back to them well after the election, their votes not having been counted.

Many students may be unaware that their absentee ballots require postage in the first place. After all, the absentee voter materials are sent postage-paid (as they should be), and nowhere in many of the Voter Instruction guides does it remind the voter to put on postage at all. Some ballots read, “If you are unsure of the postage cost, please check with your local office of the U.S. Postal Service,” but why should this burden be placed on the voter? While college students may be near post offices and therefore able to spend a few minutes figuring all this out, the same cannot necessarily be said about another large group of absentee voters—senior citizens —for whom trips to the post office may be far less convenient.

Although this piece can only begin to address the broad legal scope of this issue, it deserves to be said that requiring absentee voters to pay postage on their ballots seems to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the 24th Amendment. The amendment reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.” While the amount of this tax may seem trivial—at its highest it remains under two dollars—it is virtually impossible for a college student living outside of their state to vote without paying some sort of price. However small, this fee constitutes an infringement to the right to a free vote.

A bill was proposed in May of last year to address the issue, and it stated that “any individual casting an absentee ballot in any Federal election may mail such ballot free of postage to the appropriate election authority.” But that bill hasn’t made it out of committee.

By comparison to other democratic nations around the world, the United States suffers from very low voter turnout. And considering all of the voting issues we’ve faced in the last eight years, any opportunity to help more people vote should be seized. To be sure, the price of postage is only one issue among many—including on-site registration and limited absentee voting—but it’s one that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. The process of voting by mail needs to be made more straightforward or citizens may be unfairly disenfranchised—the best and easiest way to do this is to abolish the de facto tax that taints the process.

Nicholas J. Melvoin ’08, an inactive Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Lowell House.