Republicans say they hate all new taxes, but apparently one sort of tax is fine with many of them: a poll tax.
This is a loaded phrase that should not be used lightly. But when Attorney General Eric Holder addressed the NAACP convention in Houston, he was absolutely right in his description of new voting laws passed by Republican legislatures in a dozen states: "We call those poll taxes."
The long, if imperfect, history of American democracy reflects a steady expansion of the franchise: to non-property owners, former slaves, women, youths under 21. Reversing that trend, and restricting the franchise, is simply an outrage -- a violation of our most basic values. Fortunately Holder, the first African-American attorney general, is making the issue a top priority.
"Let me be clear," he told the NAACP. "We will not allow political pretexts to disenfranchise American citizens of their most precious rights."
Requiring a photo ID on Election Day is the most popular new poll tax, but there are other versions: Florida is making it harder to register new voters, for instance, and Ohio has cut back on early voting. The Justice Department and the Obama campaign have each filed lawsuits in several states in an effort to block these laws. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas argues that these countermeasures "aren't just wrong, they are arrogant, undemocratic and an insult to the rule of law."
He would be right if voting abuse -— the purported reason for the new laws -- was a real problem. But it is not. Widespread fraud is a fiction. The new laws have only one purpose: to help Republicans by reducing the number of poor and minority voters. Just listen to Mike Turzai, the Republican leader in Pennsylvania's legislature. That state's new voter ID law, he boasted, "is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." No spin machine can explain that one away.
The Associated Press studied the numbers and concluded "fraud appears to be rare." The Republican National Lawyers Association could identify only 400 fraud persecutions over a decade nationwide, and as AP reported, "That's not even one per state per year." By contrast, in Georgia and Indiana, where voter ID laws were in effect for the 2008 election, 1,200 valid ballots were tossed out in those two states alone.
"The numbers suggest that the legitimate votes rejected by the laws are far more numerous than are the cases of fraud," AP concluded. "Thousands more votes could be in jeopardy for this November, when more states with larger populations are looking to have similar rules in place."
The catalyst behind these new laws is obvious: the rapidly changing face of America. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan won his first term, the electorate was 88 percent white; in 2008 that figure dropped to 74 percent, and this year it should be about 72 percent. Demographers expect whites to be a minority in about 30 years.
This trend clearly favors Democrats. Obama won 53 percent of the overall vote four years ago, but 95 percent of blacks and 67 percent of Latinos. The president also attracted two out of three voters who made under $30,000 a year or didn't finish high school. And these are exactly the voters most likely to be affected by the new laws.
This all became clear last week in a federal courtroom in Washington. Under the Voting Rights Act, Texas is one of 16 jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination that must clear all changes in voting laws with the Justice Department. After the Obama administration blocked the state's new voter ID measure, a three-judge panel heard the case.
Texas attorney general Greg Abbott argued the law is permissible because the ID requirement "applies equally to all Texans." True. But a poll tax can have a discriminatory impact even if its bias is not explicit. Texans who lack IDs and could be barred from voting are heavily poor, young and non-white -- that is, Democrats. And if you think the law was not aimed at them, consider this.
The Legislature decided that a Texan with a concealed gun permit could qualify as a voter but a college student with a school ID could not. Real subtle. Lawmakers also created a new free voter ID card, but applicants would have to pay for the supporting documents needed to obtain the card, like a birth certificate.
So the Justice Department estimates that getting a "free" voter card would cost at least $22. And that, by any name, is a poll tax.