Worse than a poll tax

Worse than a poll tax

February 16th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Republican politicians apparently don't want some people to vote, especially the elderly, the disabled, the poor, minorities and, to be sure, most legal immigrants -- many of whom tend to support Democrats' view of a citizen-friendly government. The vote Monday by Tennessee's Republican-controlled state Senate to require registered voters to show photo IDs -- a driver's license or a photo ID from another governmental entity -- as a requisite for casting a ballot underscores this sentiment. The action reflects precisely how Republican-dominated legislatures around the country keep pushing stiffer voter identification laws to restrain voters whose votes they don't care about.

That's not the case everywhere. Some 23 states still observe the older common standard for verifying a voter's registration: poll workers simply look at a voter's registration card, sign them in and give them a ballot. For these states, that's enough. A person's voter-registration card confirms that an election commission office has already checked a voter's eligibility through a variety of documents.

Eighteen states, presently including Tennessee, make voting harder. They require all voters to show an ID document, but not necessarily a photo ID, before they vote. They may present something like a Social Security card or a credit card.

Four states request all voters to show a photo ID, and allow those who have no photo ID to sign affidavits attesting to their voter registration, which is typically checked further.

Three states -- Georgia, Florida and Indiana -- now require all voters to show a photo ID, either a driver's license or an ID issued by another governmental entity. In Georgia and Indiana, however, the state offers a convenient, free-photo ID service to people who need a photo ID to vote.

The bill the Tennessee state Senate passed Monday would be harsher than any other measure. If passed by the House and signed by the governor, it would require voters to produce a driver's license photo ID, or other government-issued ID card, before casting a ballot -- but without offering a convenient, free photo ID service. The bill's sponsor, Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, said the state couldn't afford to offer such a service for its voters. That's not a viable excuse.

The bill would amount to an unfair and unjust obstacle to voting for many voters in Tennessee -- an estimated 500,000 -- who do not drive or possess a driver's license or other governmental photo ID. Indeed, it's a fair assumption that most people who do not drive also do not possess a government-issued photo ID, so that tender is of little help to voters without a driver's license with a photo ID.

If these citizens are already registered voters, they already have had to prove their right to vote by presenting a verifiable Social Security number and proof of residence. But if the Senate bill is approved, the state's newly disenfranchised voters would have to study for a driver's license test, and go to a full-service Drivers License Center and take the test in order to purchase a photo ID driver's license just to vote. That amounts to a poll tax and an unlawful test to vote.

And it gets worse. Barely a third of Tennessee's counties have a full-service state Drivers License Center where voters may obtain such a photo ID card. Ask a disabled senior or handicapped person in a poorly served rural county if that's fair to home-bound citizens.

A study by the Brennan Center for Justice notes that restrictive documentation requirements are indeed unfair for many citizens who should be allowed to vote and easily could be registered and allowed to vote under more just standards, such as those Tennessee would effectively eliminate with this bill.

Its study showed that as many as 12 percent of registered voters across all ages do not have photo ID documents, and that the percentage is "even higher for seniors, people of color, people with disabilities, low-income voters, and students." The documents needed to get a photo ID are often a barrier as well.

Ketron promoted the Senate bill on the grounds that some felons -- he cited a figure of 2,370 in the 2006 and 2008 elections combined -- are believed to have illegally voted in Tennessee. We don't know the source or accuracy of those figures, but even presuming they are accurate, the number pales against the undue, and probably unconstitutional, hardship that the Senate bill would pose for perhaps half-a-million Tennesseans who do not possess a driver's license.

The Senate bill is, in fact, just like so many others pushed by Republicans in other states simply to limit the constitutional voting rights of voters whom they do not want to vote. The House should kill the bill, but it's as likely as the Senate to pass it. And Gov. Bill Haslam has already indicated that he would give the Legislature its way on virtually anything it passes, even if he doesn't agree.

Yet this bill is unjust and wrong, on its face and on the relevant facts and hardships it would pose to voters -- the elderly, the poor, minorities, the handicapped, students and legal immigrants. If this is the America the Republicans want, they should be ashamed. And the bill should be vigorously contested.