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Disguised Poll Tax Still Unfair

Published: November 25, 2005

Charlotte Observer
November 25, 2005

More than 40 years ago, Americans abolished the poll tax in the 24th Amendment, taking a historic stand against the shameful exclusion of poor people from the polls and use of poll taxes to enforce the Jim Crow segregation laws. As the Supreme Court explained a few years later, “the right to vote is too precious, too fundamental to be … burdened or conditioned” on a voter’s affluence or payment of a fee.

Ever since then, the principle that there should be no financial barriers to voting has been sacrosanct. Until now.

Over the past year, there have been growing efforts in many states to pass laws that would burden voters with new poll taxes disguised in pinstriped suits. Although these new bills have not been marketed as poll taxes, they would impose far greater costs on voters than the $1.50 poll tax the Supreme Court found unconstitutional in 1966. And like the old poll taxes, they would disproportionately exclude those Americans who have traditionally faced barriers to the ballot box.

The new poll taxes take the form of legislation that would prevent eligible citizens from voting unless they show specific forms of state-issued photo IDs.

Americans kept from polls
Many Americans do not immediately think of photo ID requirements as imposing unfair costs on voters. That is because most of us have photo IDs that we use for a variety of day-to-day activities. We could easily show those IDs at the polls. But voting is not only for most of us—it is for all of us. This is a cardinal American value.The problem is that approximately 10 percent of voting-age citizens do not have any state-issued photo IDs. This translates into as many as 30 million eligible voters who would be barred from the polls across the nation if photo ID were the law. When you factor in the proof of citizenship that will be required (directly or indirectly) under many voter ID bills, the numbers get even worse.

Arizona’s largest county has been forced to reject almost 75 percent of voter registration applications this year because the voters did not provide the proof of citizenship now required in that state. This is not because those applicants all are not citizens. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, it is eligible voters who are being hurt by these laws.

ID could be costly
Supporters of voter ID laws gloss over the expense of photo IDs for those Americans—largely the elderly, the poor, people with disabilities and people of color—who do not already have them. The fact is that driver’s or non-driver’s ID cards cost money, usually $20 or more. And the costs of the card itself are just the beginning. Federal law will soon require all ID applicants to provide documented proof of citizenship—something that many Americans do not now have. A certified copy of a birth certificate costs $10 to $45 depending on the state; a passport costs $85; and certified naturalization papers cost $19.95. It also takes time and hassle to get an ID, requiring people to take time off from their jobs and travel to busy DMV offices with limited hours.

Of course, it would it be great if all Americans could have government-issued photo IDs. But the solution to the difficulties already faced by those citizens who don’t have IDs is not to deny their fundamental right to vote. Making photo IDs a condition of voting before ensuring that all eligible citizens have these IDs puts the cart before the horse.

Photo ID laws not only violate the fundamental values of American democracy, they also make no sense. They exclude millions of eligible voters without meaningfully improving the integrity of elections.

Although they are touted as a measure to combat voter fraud, they do no such thing. The evidence shows that there is virtually no election fraud of the sort that could be prevented by photo IDs. Statistically, Americans are more likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning than to commit this kind of fraud.

Say no to Jim Crow
Photo ID bills are cropping up all over, from Arizona to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin to Georgia. They are a serious threat to democracy and should be opposed.

The good news is that a federal court recently blocked the enforcement of the first of the photo ID laws, preliminarily ruling that Georgia’s law “constitutes a poll tax” and “unduly burdens the right to vote.” But we should not wait for the courts to protect our democracy.

Americans should stand up against voter ID laws and say that we’re proud to have long ago abolished Jim Crow restrictions.

Wendy Weiser is an associate counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.