Should There be a Tax Credit for Voting?
by Byrne Hobart
Many people (the Tax Rascal included) have gotten up painfully early today to cast votes in this historic election. It’s a common argument that the voting process is flawed because voting happens on a day when most people would be working — so Democrats argue that it punishes students and blue-collar workers, while Republicans claim that it helps out welfare recipients. Both sides also argue that civic participation has value, regardless of who wins. So should we have a tax credit for voting?
The opposite idea has already been tried, and thoroughly discredited. One popular technique in the segregated South was to require a poll tax. This flat fee charged to every voter discouraged the poor — and was designed to target black voters in particular by eliminating the tax for anyone whose grandfather had voted, too.
So the idea of a poll subsidy already has a dubious history: if money and voting mostly mix in Bull Connor’s Alabama (and Richard Daley’s Chicago), it might behoove us to think carefully about trying it again.
The strongest argument in favor of a poll subsidy is that the current voting system puts some people at a disadvantage. But using a monetary incentive to fix a time discrepancy is a sloppy idea — some people will still have no time to vote, even if they’d get paid to. And it leaves open plenty of other discrepancies, too: some polling places are more inconvenient than others; some voters hate long lines; some don’t like crowds. Once we start trying to balance every little difference, we won’t be able to stop until we have a monstrously complex voting system taking care of every possible voter preference.
A secondary argument is that regardless of whether or not it’s fair to particular groups, a voting subsidy would be good for everyone because it would increase participation in the democratic process. But this is a deeply flawed premise: it would increase participation in the democratic process by people who are more encouraged by money than by participation in the process. If a voting subsidy makes a difference, they will be the deciding factor in an election. There’s nothing wrong with wanting more money than less, but if a country’s government changes because people are rewarded for participating in the change, rather than making a smart decision, it’s going to make their leadership that much worse.
A subsidy for voting would also devalue this participation for people who don’t vote for the money. There are some exchanges that just get a lot less pleasant if there’s a monetary transaction involved (the polite example would be paying all of your friends for the birthday presents they get you — but I’m sure you can think of others). If voting becomes all about the money for some people, it’s going to be at least a little bit about the money for others — and we’ll lose the chance to vote purely because we feel that voting is the right thing to do.
Our voting system is clearly flawed in many ways, but none of them are so terrible that the popular fixes aren’t worse. If you’re going to vote, there’s a good chance you’re voting because you believe in something. Let’s keep it that way.