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.