The Poll Tax Makes a Comeback

The Poll Tax Makes a Comeback

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by NANCY K. KAUFMAN & BARBARA R. ARNWINE

Nearly 50 years ago, three quarters of the states ratified the 24th amendment outlawing the poll tax in federal elections.

Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

And, a year later, the Supreme Court put a stake through the heart of the poll tax for all elections in Harper v. Virginia.

Surely those actions should have set the standard we seek to maintain today.

Yet, as we currently celebrate Black History Month, we are back on the front lines trying to preserve the gains in voting rights for minorities made more than four decades ago.  African American and Latino voters today make up 20 percent of the vote, and are projected to rise to 45 percent by 2050. It is hard to ignore the coincidence of the growth of this major demographic just as restrictions that disproportionally affect their communities are proposed.

Historically, voter disenfranchisement efforts, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, silenced the voices of millions of citizens. Examples of new iterations of these efforts – from photo voter ID laws and limited early voting opportunities, to deceptive practices and undue restrictions on third-party voting – threaten to do the same today.

Sadly, we seem to have left the era of the expansion of voter enfranchisement and have entered a time when dozens of new laws and pending proposals seek to restrict the number of people who vote by making the act of voting harder. The premise of reform — that government should do what it can to expand the franchise — has been turned on its head in favor of state-enacted barriers aimed at denying citizens their right to vote.

Perhaps the most insidious of these barriers is the nationwide effort to require restrictive government-issued photo ID in order to register to vote. It might sound innocuous — these days, after all who doesn’t have such an ID?  The claim that you must have an ID to rent a movie is an oft-used comment.  And, the justification might sound reasonable — a desire to protect against fraud.

But, the reality is that a government-issued photo ID is not, in fact, a universal possession.  Fraudulent voting through identity theft is not an issue.  Further, renting a movie is not a fundamental right to be protected for all citizens. The requirement of a government photo ID has become today’s poll tax and instead of solving a problem, it actually creates more confusion, discrimination, and exclusion at the polls.

According to surveys, 12 percent of Americans lack a government-issued photo ID — that’s more than 25 million people. Studies done by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund show that those most likely not to have such an ID include the elderly, students, women, people with disabilities, those with low income, and people of color.

Women are more than twice as likely as men to lack a driver’s license, including one in every five senior women. In fact, more than 70 percent of all Americans without a license are women. More than one-third of all who lack a license are seniors, and one-fifth of non-drivers are 18-24 years old.

Among minority youth, who are disproportionately poorer and less likely to have access to a car, the figures are higher. Moreover, the young and the poor who have licenses are far more likely to have one that does not show their current address, while one in four African Americans of voting age has no license at all. Minorities are generally less likely to have a license to drive in every age group, skewing the potential electorate.

Overcoming these laws is not simple. Even getting a non-driver’s photo ID requires documents, funds, time, and transportation. Older adults, persons with disabilities, poor, and working people are all disproportionately denied access. While these points are important to the public policy debate, it’s critical not to lose sight of the values at stake. Voting must be as easy as possible if we are to fulfill our constitutional mandate to ensure equal access to the polls.

Throughout Black History Month, as we reflect on progress made and battles that still lie ahead, it is clear what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Black leaders would say about these efforts to restrict voting. They would have urged us all to fight them in every way we can.

NANCY K. KAUFMAN is chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women, a grassroots organization inspired by Jewish values that strives to improve the quality of life for women, children, and families and to safeguard individual rights and freedoms.

BARBARA R. ARNWINE is executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice under law.

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