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Why a New Poll Tax?

Legislators should never embrace Congress' federal ID "solution" under consideration in the House today.

Congress today will consider a bill that would require anyone who votes in a national election to show proof of citizenship before casting a ballot. On the face of it, this sounds vaguely reasonable. What’s wrong with asking for an ID before voting? But the devil is in the details.

The “Federal Election Integrity Act of 2006” would require all voters to carry government-approved identification cards for which they would first have to pay. This requirement is exactly what’s wrong with the legislation: No citizen should have to pay money to vote. That’s why poll taxes were outlawed amid the civil rights movement forty years ago, and that’s why reviving the idea today is an equally bad idea.

Finding proof of citizenship and then paying to confirm that citizenship is difficult today for an important part of American society that includes elderly African Americans and Native Americans who were born at home in the care of midwives in parts of the country that didn’t much care at the time to register these births. And for those who can produce birth certificates, the time and cost of applying for an ID that they will use only several times a decade is often not worth the cost of application for those who struggle to make ends meet.

Disenfranchising people of color and the poor is as un-American today as it was forty years ago, yet that seems to be the real rationale behind the legislation. Electoral misconduct is clearly a problem, but the type of electoral fraud that is the basis for this particular piece of legislation is unsubstantiated. Voting by non-citizens should be the least of our worries. Ballot stuffing, improper vote counting, inadequate numbers of voting booths in targeted districts, and intentionally misleading election-day voting instructions are far bigger worries. In fact, together these types of voter suppression tactics threaten the integrity of our national elections.

What’s more, current law is fully up to the task of punishing those few non-citizens who actually break the law by voting. Requiring voter IDs, however, will allow under-qualified and occasionally politically motivated poll watchers to make mischief on Election Day by denying legitimate voters their right to cast ballots by questioning the veracity of voter IDs.

The upshot: this law could well encourage ballot tampering of a different sort. That’s a path Congress should reject. Ensuring the integrity of our elections is critical to our democracy. For a detailed understanding of the progressive solution to this serious problem, please see the report by our colleagues at The Century Foundation, entitled:

Balancing Access and Integrity: The Report of The Century Foundation Working Group on State Implementation of Election Reform

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