BTC Report: The Cost of Creating Barriers to Vote

A preliminary analysis of the Constitutional amendment requiring photo identification at the polls.

By Alexandra Forter Sirota, Budget & Tax Center Director,
and Luis Toledo, BTC Analyst, with BTC Analysts William Munn & Patrick McHugh
September 2018

Six state Constitutional amendments will be on the ballot this fall, and none received an official fiscal note in the 2018 legislative process to assess the costs of implementation to the state. Given the broader fiscal context for North Carolina, where recent tax cuts have reduced available revenue for public schools, health, and community well-being, a full assessment of the cost of changing the state Constitution — including the necessity and trade-offs associated with implementing these changes — should be a consideration.

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Of particular interest is the proposal to require a photo identification at the voting booth. Laws like this have been well-documented as harmful to voters with low incomes and poor voters of all races, while specifically targeting Black and Latinx voters. A previous attempt to limit the participation of poor white voters and voters of color in North Carolina that was struck down by the courts has been costly for the state, which makes a discussion of the costs of changing the constitution to require photo identification critical to our understanding of what is at stake in November.

This BTC report provides preliminary estimates of the costs to state and local governments and, thus, to all taxpayers, as well as the specific costs to individuals who currently don’t have identification.

To be clear, the costs could be far greater than this preliminary estimate suggests given the lack of clear language in the ballot and the resulting need for additional action by the legislature to define implementation of the change, should voters approve it in November. The uncertainties include whether the state will provide an identification card with no fee, the types of acceptable identification that will be allowed, the ability for North Carolina voters to receive an identification by providing necessary supporting documents without paying a fee, and the degree to which North Carolina will commit to educating voters, providing staffing to address wait times, and printing and processing provisional ballots for voters without identification.

Moreover, this report does not attempt to quantify the broader costs to society and the economy of erecting barriers to voting. Historically, across the country, certain politicians have attempted to use restrictive voting laws to rig the system for the wealthy few while cutting funds for our public education, health care, and disaster response. Barriers to full participation in the democratic process could deter the ability of communities’ to quickly and effectively identify and address their own needs and have been demonstrated to reduce economic mobility. It could erode trust and further divide people in ways that worsen our state’s ability to reach its full civic and economic potential.

Preliminary estimates of those costs that can be readily measured suggest that they are real for the state and local communities — these costs to all North Carolinians would be approximately $12 million. These costs come at a time when austerity provides little ability to absorb additional costs without raising taxes and fees or cutting other services.

These costs will therefore necessitate trade-offs with other priorities of the state such as providing support for children’s early years and education, families’ health, and communities’ well-being. Regarding the issue of election protection and security, the state will not be able to make investments that have been identified and needed to protect the electoral process and fund free and fair elections.

For the more than 218,000 individuals in North Carolina who are currently estimated to not have acceptable identification, the costs of securing one could be a hit to family’s weekly budgets and detract from the dollars that would otherwise be circulating more broadly in local economies. A preliminary estimate of these additional costs to individuals is between $18.9 million and $25.2 million. These costs will be disproportionately borne by people of color, and, while individuals without identification live in communities across the state, costs are also higher for individuals in rural communities, thereby compounding existing barriers to opportunities that exist for these communities.

Voting and civic participation are critical components of a thriving democracy and economy. Free, fair and accessible elections that expand participation in the democratic process can help North Carolina achieve our broader fiscal and economic goals by ensuring everyone regardless of where they live or their color has a vote and a voice in the democratic process.

Rather than erecting new unnecessary barriers, North Carolina could pursue smart public investments to protect the vote and ensure fuller participation in the democratic process for all North Carolinians regardless of where they live, what they look like or how they worship.

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