Voter ID: Poll Tax or Common Sense?

PHOTO: Attorney General Eric Holder attends an annual picnic held for members of Congress on the South Lawn of the White House on June 27, 2012 in Washington, D.D. The annual picnic was held for members of Congress.

The Jim Crow-era poll taxes have been outlawed for more than 50 years, but if you ask Attorney General Eric Holder, they may be making a comeback in the form of state voter ID laws.

"We call those poll taxes," Holder said, detouring from his prepared remarks during a speech at the NAACP on Tuesday to equate Texas's photo ID law to the poll taxes of the early 1900s.

Those poll taxes were deemed unconstitutional by the 24th Amendment, but the analogy may not be completely off-base.

"The comparison is in the effects," said Jane Dailey, a history professor at the University of Chicago. "They have an effect of discouraging voters in a more indirect way than poll tax laws, which have the same effect but are much more obviously standing in the way of Democratic participation."

Both are "an impediment to voting," Dailey added, but "it's not a perfect analogy."

Under the poll taxes of the early 1900s voters had to send in their tax, usually about $1, months before the election, keep track of their receipt and then bring it to the polls on Election Day. Dailey said it was like "buying a ticket to the movies months in advance."

Voter ID laws, enacted in 11 states over the past two years, require voters to show a government-issued photo ID that the state will provide for free. But while the ID is free, the documents residents need to prove their identity in order to get that ID, such as a birth certificate, are not.

Texas and the Justice Department are teeing off in federal court this week over whether Texas' law discriminates, intentionally or not, against minorities, who are less likely to have the required form of ID.

Supporters of the voter ID laws claim the ID should not be an impediment to voting because everyone has access to a free ID and the documents required to get it are things that voters should already have.

"You have to have a birth certificate to enroll in our public schools," Texas State Sen. Tommy Williams said during the Texas court trial this week. "I mean, it's a very common thing that you have to have, and I don't really see it -- it's just one of the things of life."

Williams, who helped write Texas' voter ID bill, said the law was intended to "prevent in-person voter fraud, and to shore up people's confidence in our electoral system, protect the integrity of the ballot box."

But the Obama Administration argues Texas' law was aimed at preventing minorities from voting. Holder said Tuesday that 25 percent of African Americans do not have the type of IDs Texas requires to vote while just 8 percent of whites do not have a valid ID.

In the past decade Texas has convicted only six people of voter impersonation, the only type of voter fraud that its photo ID law would guard against. By comparison, the state estimates that 605,000 to 795,000 registered Texas voters do not currently have the ID required to vote.

"There is fraud and there is some voter impersonation fraud but you're trying to kill a fly with a bazooka with these kinds of laws," said Nathaniel Persily, a voting law expert at Columbia Law School. "There's a lot of collateral damage."

Of the 11 states that passed voter ID laws, Texas's law is one of the most restrictive because it only accepts a couple types of photo IDs, said Wendy Weiser, director of Democracy program at New York University's Brennan Center, which supports the Justice Department in the case against Texas.

Unlike in Kansas, where the newly-passed voter ID law takes effect for this November's election, Texas voters cannot use a student ID from a Texas state school. Concealed handgun permits, on the other hand, are accepted under Texas' law.

Kansas' law has not been challenged by the Justice Department because, unlike Texas, it does not have to be pre-cleared under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Similar photo ID laws in South Carolina and Wisconsin, which do have to get pre-clearance, were struck down earlier this year.

As things stand now, voters in five states ? Kansas, Indiana, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Tennessee- will have to show IDs at the polls this November.

Because Pennsylvania is the only voter ID state that is shaping up to be competitive in the 2012 presidential race, Persily said it's not likely that voter ID laws will have much of an effect on the election outcome.

"I tend to think the effect of voter id will be lost in the shuffle of all the other factors that will affect who will be the next president," he said.

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