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Voter ID laws: stepchildren of literacy tests and poll taxes

The effort to require state-issued identification cards for purposes of voting has a long history in the United States. Although the imposition of “Voter I.D.” laws has occurred in over 30 states nationwide, it is no accident or coincidence that the impetus for these laws began in the South.

These laws represent the latest in a long line of “requirements” imposed upon disaffected groups, mainly and especially southern black Americans, Indians, poor and immigrant whites, to disenfranchise them. These measures, along with “poll taxes,” were purposely designed to limit or eliminate altogether any influence these groups might have on the body politic.

Beginning in 1890, the first “literacy tests” and poll taxes for voting purposes were promulgated in the South. There, local, county, state and federal officials recognized that most southern blacks had little or no education, and that requiring them to pass literacy tests would ensure their inability to vote. Also, “grandfather clauses” were inserted into some southern state constitutions, which required that a potential voter’s grandfather or great grandfather must have voted in order for his grandchildren or great grandchildren to do so. In 1890, that meant that if your grandfather or great grandfather had not voted prior to 1867, you would be denied the right to vote. Putting aside the fact that most blacks were slaves prior to 1867 (and thus not legally entitled to vote), only a handful even knew who their grand- or great grandparents were or had been.

Still there were a number of diligent black people who were determined to vote. Even after the 1890 laws were imposed, a few daring souls tried to pass those literacy tests and pay the poll taxes. It is important to note that most whites (except out-of-favor immigrants) were exempt from these requirements – exempted because election officials simply would not ask them to submit to a test or a tax.

Examples of literacy test questions:

1) Recite the Declaration of Independence – backwards.

2) In succession, name the first ten Secretaries of War.

3) Name Thomas Jefferson’s 187 slaves.

4) Recite Article IV of the U.S. Constitution in 30 seconds.

Or, my personal favorite:

5) How many peanuts are in that filled-to-the-brim bushel basket? You may guess your answer, or you’ll have two minutes to count them by hand. Your answer must be exact to the last peanut.

These laws remained in effect throughout the south until they were all overturned by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In some southern counties, absolutely no black people were registered to vote at all for decade after decade after decade.

The 1965 Act did something else, though. It required that those southern states which had so egregiously denied black people the vote must submit any changes in voting laws and procedures to the federal Justice Department for approval. This provision of the Act has stuck in the craw of all southern states since then, and they all have tried mightily to overturn it -- so far without success.

So, let's be clear: Today’s “Voter I.D.” requirements follow this long established pattern of using every trick in the book (and some not even in the book) to deny black folks a voice in this government. Sure, in a number of states the identification card itself is “free.” But the costs associated with obtaining the supporting documentation, and the travel and time required in doing so are prohibitive for poor people. Obviously, election officials know this…are counting on it, in fact. They know – are counting on – the fact that most of the I.D.-less and therefore disenfranchised voters are Democratic Party voters. Again, it is no accident or coincidence that these laws are being passed and implemented in Republican Party dominated states – exclusively.

Estimates are that today, already as many as 5 million people have effectively been disenfranchised by these laws. That’s 5 million fewer voters in the upcoming November elections. That’s possibly 5 million fewer votes for President Obama. And that, of course, is the only and whole point of this "Voter I.D." charade.

Thus, to "restore" faith in the American version of democratic government, a necessary, non-negotiable and first step will be cleansing the nation-state of its constant, odious attempts to limit voting rights. The trend for the last 30 years had been in the opposite direction: expanding voting rights to 18 year olds; expanding absentee voting; expanding and easing the voting registration process; expanding the timeframe for voting for, in some cases, almost a whole month.

But as Republicans have taken control of the voting machinery (both literally and substantively) in state after state, one of their first initiatives has been to attempt to limit the number of people who can vote; when they vote, and how they can vote.

The solution would seem to be the establishment of a standard, national, single voting regime covering all elections -- local, state, and federal; and which is regulated, operated and controlled by the federal government. In other words, nationalization of the entire election process is the only sure means of ensuring free and fair elections in these United States.

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RESOURCES:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poll_taxes#United_States

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literacy_test

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voter_ID_laws

http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/washington-whispers/2012/08/02/pennsylvania-state-officials-testify-voter-id-law-is-unconstitutiona

http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=100

http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/vot/intro/intro_b.php