That Awkward Moment When: I Was Basically Asked to Pay a Poll Tax 1

forms of identification that are acceptable to vote with I can’t drive a car. No, let me rephrase that. I am not legally allowed to drive a car. I don’t have a valid license. My permit expired in January of 2013. I quit trying to drive over four years prior to that. I was having dizzy spells when I would drive, so I decided that driving was not going to be something that I could do.1 After I quit driving, I continued to use my permit at banks and medical offices to prove that I was indeed the person that I claimed to be. I probably would have continued to do so for a long time, but last fall, I had a bank teller tell me that she wasn’t technically supposed to accept my ID because it was no longer valid. After swearing to her that I didn’t drive on an expired license, she suggested I get a non-Driver ID from the Department of Public Safety. This would have cost me $23.50, which was something that I couldn’t afford.

When I found out that a valid Photo ID was required to vote in the state of Alabama, I started looking for a way to get an ID that I could use. Then, the State started running an ad about free photo IDs provided by Alabama’s Secretary of State through each county’s Board of Registrars to people needing them to vote. Well, that sounded like EXACTLY what I needed. I checked online to see what the requirements for me to get one were. There really weren’t any. Everything that they needed was stuff that they could get without me bringing in anything or paying anything.

You know that old saying of “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”? Guess what?! That applied here.

First, we had to track down the actual office. The first place that my dad and I tried was the county courthouse, which used to be where it was located. I’d never been to the registrar’s office before because I used a mail-in form to register to vote when I was eighteen. My dad had taken my mom to the old office to do absentee voting, so he thought it was still there. Oddly enough, absentee voting is still done there. According to a sign at the courthouse and an employee2 there, the office had moved to 816 Cook Avenue, so my father and I traveled over there. What the sign and the employee didn’t seem to know is that 816 Cook Avenue simply doesn’t exist. It was not at 8-1-6, but 8-1-9. And the building it’s located in? There’s no sign on the outside that says that this registrar office is there. There’s a small part of the sign that says there is a Madison County office there, but nothing about what kind of office for the County is there. We didn’t know until we were inside the agriculture building looking at the signs on the doors where the office we were looking for actually was.

That’s where the real fun began.

information that was needed for the card I walked in and told a worker, D, what I was in need of. She asked if I had any of the other ID cards that could be used. I told her no. She asked again. I told her no again. She asked me to look at the list, which was on the back of the form I had to fill out, and if I was absolutely sure that I didn’t have a valid photo ID then I should fill out the form. I checked the list again three more times.3 I filled out the form. She then asked if I had the copy of my birth certificate with me. I said no. She started going into a spiel of how I needed to go home and get the birth certificate and come back. This was about the point when my indignant attitude kicked in.

I had read what was needed. I had read what I needed to provide and what they could get without me bringing in. My birth certificate was one of those things that the County could get. I knew this. I also knew that I had no earthly clue of where my birth certificate might be. It has been over a decade since the last time I even needed a copy of it. I told D that I had no idea where a copy was. This was when J came around the corner. She asked him what they should do. He said to send me to get a copy of my birth certificate. She turned back around. Apparently D & J didn’t realize that their voices could carry. They also didn’t realize that I had already heard them talking about the price involved in getting a birth certificate.

J came over to me and told me that I needed to go to the Health Department. He then said that he had just gotten one for his daughter for some special thing she needed to do and that they were only $15. Oh, goodness! Fifteen dollars. Well, that’s only 3% of what I get overall from disability each month. Basically, a birth certificate is 1 day’s worth of benefits. I don’t know how much J or D makes in a year and I really don’t care, but I have a feeling that if they were looking at having to pay 1-day’s worth of what they make in a month so they could receive something they were entitled to for free by law, then their indignant sides might have kicked in.

what J suggested was ridiculous since there was an agreement in place for them to get free copies of the certificateI was calm. I just sat there while they went to an actual member of the Board. S came in and was talking about what else they could use, but most of it wasn’t something I could provide without paying some fee. She wasn’t actually talking to me yet, just D and J. She decided to call Montgomery and this was where things started changing with how they treated me. When she brought up the idea of sending me to the county’s Health Department for a copy of the birth certificate that would be used by them, they apparently pointed out something else that I already knew; requiring someone to pay to be allowed to vote is a poll tax. Poll taxes are, say it with me, illegal. They’re unconstitutional according to the 24th Amendment, which specifically prohibits them. They’re also considered unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.4 Forcing me to pay $15 to get documentation for an ID used just for voting would be violating my Constitutional rights.5 They couldn’t do it. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t do it. If they tried, the State could (and would) get sued.6

S came out around this time to talk to me specifically. S told me what they were going to have to do. They were having to get a copy of a form for me to fill out so I could request a copy of my birth record from the Department of Public Health. She apologized for my having to wait. She had to print out the forms and the protocol that they were supposed to be following for these cards. D and J tried to suggest that it wasn’t their fault because I was only the thirteenth person to request an ID and I was the only one that hadn’t had what they “needed” to get the card.7

I filled out the forms and signed them and was told by S that I needed to wait another five to ten minutes to see if they heard back. Meanwhile, I heard D joking that the Department of Public Health was never going to send it. D, who probably still didn’t realize I could hear her voice from the other room, came out and asked me if I needed the card soon. I told her that I needed it by the June primaries. She asked if I needed it for anything else. I almost pointed out that she had already told me that they could only be used for voting, but I didn’t. I just shook my head and said that I only needed it to vote.

When S finally decided they were going to take too long to send it, she suggested I go home. She ended up using my EBT card as a non-photo ID that had my name on it.8 She said that after the certificate came in that she and the 2 other members of the board would decide if that was enough. She felt it probably would be, so she said I could expect to receive a copy of the ID in the mail soon.

Anyway, while I was there, S also put together a folder filled with the protocols and forms where the employees could easily get to it. She pointed it out to each of them. She also pointed out the fax number of the DPH. Basically, she was cleaning the shit off the fan while I was there. Hopefully, the next time someone like me goes in, they won’t end up going through this kind of drama. Until then, I have to agree with anyone who argues that laws like this one are the new way of doing poll taxes. They seem to exist to, on some level, disenfranchise the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and minorities. The writers of the law may not have intended this kind of requirement to be treated like a poll tax, but that’s pretty much what is happening. If I had agreed to do what they suggested, then that’s what would have happened today. I have a feeling that it probably is happening across the state. I have a feeling that this is what is going on and I have a feeling that some of the people either don’t realize that what is going on is illegal or that they realize it, but are afraid to talk about it publicly. I’m not. It is okay to call the state on the bullshit that is this requirement. It is okay to suggest that what is going on may violate the rights of law-abiding people. It is okay to suggest that this kind of law doesn’t need to exist in the world because it really shouldn’t exist.

  1. It was weird because my previous anxiety-induced refusals to drive were ignored, despite my bad reactions to even being in a car. When I ended up being able to drive rather well and had learned to like driving, but had an actual physiological reason that I could not drive, it quit being a point of contention in the family. 

  2. The employee also said that it was right behind the Krispy Kreme. 

  3. This probably was my OCD kicking in because I was starting to get annoyed. It comes out more in stressful situations. 

  4. If the 14th Amendment sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the one the Tea Party members always want to get rid of. 

  5. Interestingly, the $1 to $2 required in the 1960s is equivalent to about $15 now. 

  6. If you think that would be a frivolous lawsuit, then you might consider going elsewhere quickly because I probably would want nothing to do with you. 

  7. Oddly enough, an elderly couple came in while I was waiting for the same cards. The 84 year old woman who couldn’t hear and could barely walk was originally told to use her expired license. Her indignance flared up. The man was told he couldn’t apply for one since he still has a valid license. He suggested that he probably shouldn’t be driving, but had to keep the license to get them around. It didn’t matter because, according to the law, he still had a valid license. 

  8. It was also one that had been provided by the state and tied to a record that includes proof of my name, address, birthday, and Social Security numbers. The EBT office had the ability to not only have all those pieces of information without me bringing verification, but to have the amounts I receive from the SSA and the cost of things like utilities without my bringing them proof. Also, they’re within a mile of the registrar’s office. 

About Janet Morris

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama. I've got as many college credits as a doctorate candidate, and the GPA of some of them, too. I have a boss by the name of Amy Pond. She's a dachshund. My parents both grew up in Alabama.

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