When is a voter restriction law like a poll tax? This is the question posed by a wave of laws passed in 11 states that require voters to show state-issued photo IDs. Attorney General Eric Holder has argued that such laws are not aimed at preventing voter fraud, as supporters claim, but to make it more difficult for minorities to exercise their right to vote. The new Texas photo ID law is like the poll taxes, Holder charges, used to disfranchise generations of African-American and Mexican-American citizens. Texas Gov. Rick Perry denies this. He claims that using “poll tax” language is “designed to inflame passions and incite racial tension.” Perry is now demanding an apology from President Barack Obama for “Holder’s imprudent remarks.” But no apology needs to be issued. For these laws function very much like a poll tax.
Poll taxes belong to an ugly chapter in U.S. race relations. They were part of the Southern states’ Jim Crow system, which prevailed from the late 19th century into the 1960s, and robbed blacks and other minorities of their political and civil rights. The new voter ID laws are, of course, not exactly the same as the old poll taxes. History provides few examples of exact replicas. But the new laws and the historic poll tax do share three significant points:
First, a voter restriction is like a poll tax when its authors use voting fraud as a pretext for legislation that has little to do with voting fraud. Second, it is like a poll tax when it creates only a small nuisance to some voters, but for other groups it erects serious barriers to the ballot. Third, it is like a poll tax when it has crude partisan advantage as its most immediate aim.