When Wisconsin legislators passed the most restrictive voter ID law in the country earlier this year, they enacted what legal experts and voting rights activists have correctly identified as a poll tax. Proponents of the law argued otherwise. They pointed out that eligible voters who could not afford a state ID could obtain one without charge.
With the decision of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to direct DMV employees to refrain from actively informing the public about the ability to receive a free identification card for the purposes of voting, however, the potential that the voter ID law could serve as a poll tax becomes realistic — and legally significant. Notably, the head of the DOT is a former Republican legislator with close ties to Gov. Scott Walker, and the author of the memo on denying information to prospective voters is a political appointee.
The term “poll tax” has a sordid history. With roots in the anti-democratic practice of allowing only the landed gentry to vote, poll taxes became even more notorious when they were associated with the efforts of Southern segregationists to deny the franchise to African-Americans. A critical turning point came in 1962 with the ratification of the 24th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed poll taxes in federal elections.
In 1966 the U.S. Supreme Court used the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to rule that poll taxes were unconstitutional for state and local elections.
And a lot of people thought that poll taxes would be buried along with the rest of the “Jim Crow” restrictions. That was not to be the case.
The poll tax argument has been renewed with the national push by secretive right-wing groups, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, to pass voter suppression laws such as Wisconsin’s voter ID bill.
The point of this push is to narrow the franchise by making it more difficult to vote. The presumption is simple enough: A more economically elite electorate is likely to favor the conservative policies favored by groups such as ALEC — and its corporate funders — and so it makes perfect political sense to erect new voting barriers for people with low incomes or limited mobility, students and the elderly. It does not, however, make legal — let alone democratic — sense.
Full Article: John Nichols: Voter ID rule is a poll tax.