October 14th, 2012
09:00 AM ET

Opinion: Voter ID laws reminiscent of poll taxes

Editor's Note: Kevin Gaines is a professor of history and Afroamerican and African studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author of "Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture During the Twentieth Century." He is a past president of the American Studies Association.

By Kevin Gaines, Special to CNN

(CNN) - It is a stunning irony that the Republican Party, the onetime party of Lincoln that expanded democracy and voting rights after the end of slavery, has embraced voter suppression as a key strategy for winning the 2012 elections.

Defenders of a spate of voter ID laws claim they are trying to prevent voter fraud.

Their quixotic battle against an imagined crisis of voter fraud visible only to them undermines the voting rights of all Americans, and makes a travesty of our democracy.

Voter ID cases: Invisible voter v. imaginary fraud

Those seeking to prevent eligible voters from exercising their fundamental right of citizenship threaten to take us back to an era of state-sanctioned discrimination.

A battle is being waged in the courts over the survival and health of our democracy. The current crop of voter ID laws and other state attempts to limit access to the polls are so extreme that some measures to restrict voting rights are being reversed.

A federal district court recently upheld South Carolina’s voter ID law, though it will not take effect until after the 2012 election.

South Carolina has a particularly sordid history of excluding African-Americans from voting and office holding.

During the civil rights movement, black and white Americans gave their lives to make the nation honor the voting rights of all its citizens. People marched, braved jail, beatings and worse because for generations, African-Americans (and many impoverished whites, as well) were legally prevented from voting in Southern states.

Mindful of the past sacrifices of so many, people who value democracy do not want a return to those dark times.

Today, as in the past, attempts to remove African-Americans from the voter rolls are not simply about race. Like the poll taxes of the Jim Crow era, today’s voter ID laws are a race-neutral mechanism to prevent many eligible voters from voting. But these laws also disproportionately affect students, the elderly (many of whom have voted all their lives without incident) and the poor.

In 1940, as black and white civil rights activists challenged the constitutionality of the Alabama poll tax, The Tuscaloosa News agreed with those surviving legislators who enacted the law in 1901: “They feel that the poll tax provision … is the soundest safeguard for honest elections and that its removal would make Alabama subject to the same kind of machine politics found in northern cities where no poll tax exists.” Defenders of the current spate of voter ID laws and their tea party auxiliaries are thus part of a tradition in which outright discrimination is justified by cant about the integrity of elections.

Some of the voter ID laws subject eligible voters to bureaucratic hurdles worthy of Kafka’s fiction. In Texas, your state-issued voter ID card is “free.” But to obtain it, you must pay $22 for a birth certificate if you do not already have one. And if you were born out-of-state, or worse, never possessed an official birth record in the first place, as is the case with many elderly blacks born in the South, then tough luck.

The simple truth is that historically, the disfranchisement of African-Americans has undermined the rights and freedoms of others, as well.

It would do the same today. While the poll taxes of yesteryear disqualified many blacks locked in poverty, such laws also prevented impoverished whites from voting. In taking away the suffrage of whites as well as blacks, Southern state constitutions helped consolidate the political and economic dominance of wealthy whites over working-class and poor whites and blacks.

A similar dynamic of racial exclusion as a Trojan horse for a more comprehensive attack on democracy is happening today. The role of the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council, which is helping draft state voter ID laws, points to a top-down strategy to ensure a more favorable political climate for the conservative policy agendas of deregulation, ending Social Security and Medicare, more tax cuts for the rich, and ending the collective bargaining rights of public employees.

At the height of the civil rights movement, Bob Dylan sang that poor whites whose hatred supported and sustained Jim Crow segregation were only pawns in a game controlled by wealthy, powerful whites. Like those who defended the poll taxes, those involved in today’s voter suppression will deny that they are engaged in what amounts to racial profiling and discrimination.

But they, too, are only pawns that are unable to see that their own rights and future are imperiled by the far-reaching corporate agenda of the Republican Party.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kevin Gaines.

soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. James Johnson

    I cannot cash a check,use my credit cards, buy insurance or due hundreds of other things in America without showing identification. I find it offensive any citizen of the United States of America should not be allowed to vote, however I find it crimminal that one person be allowed to vote that is fraudulent.

    November 4, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Name*Gi Jon

    I've noticed that most of your articles in opposition to the voter id laws are written by people of color you can't get welfare or food stamps without an id why should you be able to vote without one and as far as voter fraud remember acorn and how are dead people voting I'll tell you illegal aliens use dead peoples ss numbers to get jobs illegaly why not vote illegaly

    October 15, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Rebekah

    I just wanted to say that I thought I'd watch your programming but was quickly reminded why I quit watching CNN. You people are nothing but propagandists for the Democrat party. We ask people to show id for SO MUCH less than the highest right as citizens we have (voting for our representation) and I don't recall CNN and it's hosts being upset about "repression" before. But now that the Democrats' ability to commit voter fraud has been substantially decreased, all of a sudden the Republicans are trying to suppress minorities. This is such crap! No one in this country is any less able to do what I do! Get an ID!

    October 14, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mo

      No dear I think you're mistaken. Rebekah most recent statistics (please correct me if I'm wrong on this) cite that there have been about 2,068 cases of voter fraud/impersonation since 2000. Which is about one per 15 million prospective voters. Am I to understand that we are to understand that we are to substantially overhaul the voting system to allow for new voting requirements on the basis of "widespread voter fraud?"

      I find it almost laughable that the GOP sincerely expects the population at large to believe that this has NOTHING to do with the fact that it's an election year, and the demographics most likely to become adversly affected are lower income, and minority groups?

      Why is it in 2012 that we would want to create more OBSTACLES to bar people from voting? The negative ramifications for implementing these laws just don't compare to the proposed gains from implementing voter id laws. This is such a TERRIBLE idea.

      October 15, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |