What's a Poll Tax? And How Do I Get One?

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Move to Texas, for starters.  

Merriam-Webster defines a poll tax as “a tax of a fixed amount per person levied on adults and often linked to the right to vote.”  Colloquially, a poll tax is a prerequisite to voting. Stated another way, if a person doesn't meet the requirements of the poll tax, he or she is barred from casting a vote.  

No problem, right?  In theory, there are some good reasons for this.  Even some arguably good restrictions.  For instance – a person must be 18 years of age or older to vote.  Eighteen is the common age of majority, is the age when a person can, without parental consent, sign up to fight and die for one's country, and presumptively the age when a person has completed high school with some notion of the importance of citizenship and its attendant duties.  It's applicable to everyone and doesn't ask much of anyone except to generally stay alive.  It's even in the U.S. Constitution at a place commonly known as the Twenty-Sixth Amendment.  (Note: this was added in 1971, during the Vietnam War, and during the draft.   Coincidence?)  

A legislature or other deliberative, representative body will not pass a law stating that people of a certain group of various, immutable characteristics (i.e.: race, gender) cannot vote.  Good news, right?  You're a minority?  You can vote.  You're a woman?  You can vote.  

That same legislature or other deliberative, representative body may, however, pass a law requiring something else before a person may cast a vote – e.g.: pass a literacy test.  Or, they may pass a law requiring certain forms of identification before a person may vote; at the same time, they may also disqualify other forms of identification as permissible IDs for voters to present before they vote, even IDs that voters have presented for years and on which they have relied for years in order to access the polls.  The rules are often arbitrary, the standards for implementation are arbitrary and ill-defined, and the enforcement is arbitrary.

A poll tax bears no relationship to the health of the electorate or integrity of the voting process.  Advocates of the voting restriction will argue vigorously that the requirement is necessary and that the good of the public hinges on it.  With a poll tax, however, the reasons offered are often pretext.  There is no evidence to support them.  In fact, there is often ample evidence which directly counters those pretextual reasons.  Moreover, they often disproportionately burden a group of the type above (e.g.: minorities).  At that point, you no longer have a reasonable restriction protecting the public and the integrity of the ballot.  You have disenfranchised voters.  You have a poll tax.  You have Jim Crow.

That couldn't happen.  Not here.  Not now. Read on.

On May 27, 2011, Governor Rick Perry signed Senate Bill 14 into law.  Senate Bill 14 ramped up the requirements that voters must meet when going to cast a ballot at the polls.  In order to vote, a person must now present a valid photo identification from the following list:

• A Texas driver's license;

• A personal identification card issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety and featuring the voter's photograph;

• An election identification certificate (this is a new form of state photo identification created by the legislation);

• A U.S. military identification card featuring the voter's photograph;

• A U.S. citizenship certificate featuring the voter's photograph;

• A U.S. passport; or

• A concealed handgun permit issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The photo identification requirement is new.  Previously, birth certificates, bank statements and utility bills were permissible forms of identification to present at the polls.  No more.  Also excluded from the list?  Student identification cards – even those issued by state universities.  

Proponents of the bill make three general arguments: 1) the law guards against voter fraud at the polls; 2) the law is generally applicable (i.e.: everyone has to comply with it); and 3) a free voter photo identification card will be made available to anyone who goes through the application process .

Opponents of the law argue against those three points: 1) there is no voter fraud, and any justification of voter fraud is mere pretext: 2) while generally applicable, the law disproportionately affects some groups (i.e.: minorities) more than others; 3) the allegedly free, equally available voter ID cards do in fact carry external costs which impose greater burdens on some groups (i.e.: minorities) than others, and 4) the implementation and enforcement mechanisms are vaguely defined and arbitrary.

The Lone Star State is not, in fact, so alone.  This year, disenfranchisement is de rigueur.  As Congressman John Lewis of Georgia pointed out in an August op-ed piece in The New York Times, photo ID measures were “advanced in 35 states and passed by Republican legislatures in Alabama, Minnesota, Missouri and nine other states.”  An article in Bloomberg put the figure of states considering such bills at 34, noting that laws requiring photo identification in order to vote were enacted or amended in Kansas, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Tennessee, and, yes, Texas.

In an article in Rolling Stone earlier this month, Ari Berman summarized the trend thus:

“Kansas and Alabama now require would-be voters to provide proof of citizenship before registering. Florida and Texas made it harder for groups like the League of Women Voters to register new voters. Maine repealed Election Day voter registration, which had been on the books since 1973. Five states – Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia – cut short their early voting periods. Florida and Iowa barred all ex-felons from the polls, disenfranchising thousands of previously eligible voters. And six states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures – Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin – will require voters to produce a government issued ID before casting ballots.”

On September 14, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the NAACP issued a joint letter to the U.S. Department of Justice objecting to preclearance of the new Texas election laws under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, including in their letter the arguments against the law summarized above.  

Next up, we talk about the practical implications of the new law that make it a poll tax, how the Voting Rights Act offers protection for voters in Texas, and preclearance and how and why it matters.  


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  1. Stealth Poll Tax and Secret Surveillance — A Short History
    Chapter 19 of the Jim Crow Texas Election Code used to be captioned “Poll Tax”. “Back in the Day”, the colored post-card prescribed for this year's “mass mail-out” was called the “Poll Tax Receipt”. It was capriciously and notoriusly used by the dominant party in power to harrass and suppress the token opposition party in Texas and other ex-Confederate, “one-party”, States. The “other party” in such an arrangement was and still is the party, by whatever name, that had the most black or voters and relatively — but not absolutely — the least “white home-owners”.

    This was and is the “Post-Recontstruction” deal that made and keeps the South the least powerful or healthy and the most impoverished region of the United States. Texas is in the interesting position of being the “last-in” but not the “first-out” of the states to start and lose a civil war.

    Official, meaning complex, legal, oppression of voters — conspicuously by race but actually through elaborate economic discrimination — used to come from the “segregationist” Democratic office-holders. Today, it is but is stock and trade of “conservative” Republican incumbnents in Texas and a national complex of mercenary political operators and proprietary contractors.

    This is thanks largely to party-switchers like Rick Perry and Aaron Pena. But, yesterday and today official vote-suppression is an artifact of a one-and-a-half party system of bi-partisan concession-tending in which incumbent office-squatters and their handlers constantly tinker with and preserve the Jim Crow Texas Election Code in order to preserve their investment in a system of plutocratic bias.

    Following a Supreme Court decision based on a lawsuit out of Houston in the early 1950's, …

    The dollar amount of the tax was set at zero; …

    Chapter 19 was quickly re-captioned “Voter Registration”; and …

    One line of the Poll Tax Receipt was changed to “Voter Registration Certificate”.

    This is the least important but most conspicuous change.

    The effects of this, “net, net, net” are … very little change in the political character of this our any Southern state. Our government and politics are both still dominated by (a) the cornpone triumvir of “doctors, lawyers, and preachers” locally and various bankers elsewhere. The “outside investors” virtually own one-and-a-half parties in Texas through what are now “global” institutions of public, private, or, now, hybrid debt.

    All the Tea Party kitsch should not obscure the fact that Texas does not have a popular or patriotic political party, just local branches of a global, financial elite — no, not the “Elders of Zion”, more like the Party of Davos.

    And, procedures for registration to vote in Texas are far more complex and onerous, today than ever. Basically, this state has started slipping back into a “literacy test” for voter registration.

    Procedures in the polling place for qualification of an eligible and registered voter have now became more intimidating, centralized, tedious, and simply unreliable for everybody.

    Rather than being based on a simple, sworn affidvit of where one lives for the purpose of voting, since the 1970's voter registration and qualification have became an adversarial process — “Der Prozeß” in East German — where the would-be voter has to proove over and over — with increasingly costly forms of documentary evidence:

    (1) That one is indeed eligible to vote, …

    (2) That one has perfected one's now extensive and almost entirely duplicative voter registration database records, …

    (3) That one has not been defamed with effectively secret criminal or pyschiatric information imported into the voter registration database, …

    (4) That one is actually the person presenting to vote in person, and …

    (5) That one has, for instance, (5.1) presented photo ID to a vital records clerk, (5.2) in order to get a costly birth certificate, (5.3) in order to obtain the photo ID (5.1) one did not have in the first place.

    This Kafkaesque rigamarole is supposed to prove a double negative (not inelgible to vote) and to authenticate an individual voting by personal appearance. [Participants in GOP “mail programs” and, of course, “Escapees” in Polk County must have or produce nothing but but access to the Post Office.]

    This is all absurd, but when political competition is a sham in the first place, one should not be too surprised.

    The transaction and opportunity costs of this “system” fall very heavily on the young, the poor, and the non-white, hence, a poll tax by other means. In fact, Texas has and, now, other states are being conformed to a federally “credit scored” franchise.

    Even more curiously, voter registration records are now cleared for homeland security purposes and perfected, in the legal sense of that word, using the same personal identity information fields, “PII”, and some of the national computer and international “clearinghouse” and even “fusion” facilities ordinarily used for financial applications and military intelligence or criminal surveillance purposes. These systems are notoriously failure-prone and subject to criminal exploitation. But, that does not seem to bother the GOP in Texas as long as, one supposes, nobody involved is gay or Muslim.

    Forgotten in all this is the fact that Texas has explicit constitutional provision for “universal suffrage”. We disenfranchise very few citizens: minors, felons, and mentally incapacitated persons. These are “wards” of their parents or the state and would not be able to vote freely.

    However, state statutes, especially the Texas Election Code have always subverted the state constitution. The missing element in all of this, ironically, is the ancient republican and democratic identity of a “well regulated militia” and “universal suffrage”.

    Texas has never had either owing to fear of the propertied class here and their creditors elsewhere of “the young, the poor, and the non-white”. Imagine “those people” as both armed and voting. Horror!

    Actually, take away the young part, and the incumbents of both parties cannot even support the notion of using the VA Card as a “military ID”.

    It seems that some people are too foolish to be allowed to vote or even to serve in the military unless, of course, there is a war: Then, the propertied class want somebody else to do the fighting and pay the taxes. So, we have a credit-scored franchise and an “all volunteer” military that needs to be purged of the gay unless, of course, there is a war.

    This is no way to have “a republic if you can keep it”.  

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