The laws, Holder said, were a 21st-century version of the “poll tax,” an effort by the powerful to keep poor whites and blacks from exercising their constitutional right to cast a ballot. “Let me be clear: We will not allow political pretexts to disenfranchise American citizens of their most precious rights,” Holder said. “I can assure you that the Justice Department’s efforts to uphold and enforce voting rights will remain aggressive.”
In the aftermath, Holder’s opponents settled on an old familiar talking point. Hmmff, they snorted, what’s so hard about picture IDs, which are required to open a checking account, purchase alcohol or even gain entrance into the hall where Holder addressed the members of the NAACP.
The talking point spread like wildfire, frequently asserted by the Republican proponents of voter-ID laws. “If citizens are required to show ID in order to open a bank account, cash a check, drive a car or board a plane,” says U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, “how much more important is it to show ID in order to exercise one of our most valuable democratic rights?”
In a perverse way, however, the talking point is what a poker player would call a “tell,” a giveaway of its speakers’ true intentions. Voting is a constitutional right, the very cornerstone of our democracy. Flying on airplanes, owning a bank account or even hearing the attorney general are all fine things, but they aren’t a building block upon which rests the precious notion of one man, one vote.
To make this comparison is to cheapen a right bought through the sweat and blood of those who fought to see the ballot box open to more Americans. This era’s drive for greater restrictions is nothing less than an effort to return the nation to a place where it was harder for the disenfranchised among us to vote.
The Republicans are targeting voters who aren’t friendly to their candidates. There’s no nicer way to put it. They have manufactured a phony crisis of massive voter fraud, claims that are not supported by evidence. A study by the Brennan Center for Justice suggests toughened voter-ID laws could take the vote away from more than 5 million Americans who are properly registered.
Our nation’s arc has historically been toward greater access to the ballot. From a place where polling places were once the domain of white males with wealth we have moved to a nation where racial minorities, women and those over age 18 can legally vote. What’s at stake in this Republican drive where more than 30 states have made casting a ballot more difficult is a step backward. Actually, it’s more like a giant leap backward, one so drastic that the U.S. attorney general compares it to the poll taxes of Jim Crow days.