The 24th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1964, prohibits Congress and the states from requiring a tax or payment in order to vote, otherwise known as a poll tax. Poll taxes originated in Southern states after Reconstruction as a way to make it more difficult for African Americans to vote. By forcing poor folks to spend money to cast a ballot, they effectively discouraged their participation.
Now, 45 years later, the Republican Party is pulling an end-run on the Constitution by passing laws that make it more difficult, once again, for poor people to vote.
The trick-play — laws requiring voters to have a state-issue photo ID — is deceptively cloaked as a way to prevent voter fraud, a mostly nonexistent problem. In most states where the law has passed, voters can obtain the ID for free, but there can be significant expenses, including having to buy a birth certificate. And in Tennessee, for example, the free IDs must be obtained at one of around 70 driver's-license testing stations statewide, so many Tennesseans will have to travel to another county in order to obtain an ID. And if they don't have a driver's license, that means getting a ride somehow. A nice Catch-22, that one. And one that, while not a "tax," will certainly cost some prospective voters money.
In Tennessee, 126,202 people over 60 have non-photo driver's licenses. That doesn't include those who have no driver's license at all, a considerable number. Here are the percentages of those who don't have state-issued IDs for various groups: African Americans, 25 percent; Latino Americans, 19 percent; 18-24 years old, 18 percent; those with incomes under $35,000, 15 percent.
Looks a little bit like Memphis, doesn't it?
If, as Republicans say, this law isn't meant to discourage anyone from voting, I have a suggestion, an amendment to the law, if you will: Install cameras like those at drivers service bureaus in voter-registration facilities. When a citizen registers to vote, he gets his or her picture taken and a photo ID made. Voila, instant state-issued photo ID. How hard is this to figure out? And we can afford it. Thanks to the GOP, which overturned the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act of 2008, we have $37 million in targeted federal funds going unused.
If this law isn't about making it more difficult to vote, then this would be a simple fix and would end the controversy. Right? I'm surprised they didn't think of it.
Exactly seven years ago this week, I wrote a column decrying a proposal by city engineers to turn the Overton Park Greensward into an 18-foot-deep "detention basin" designed to stop flooding in Midtown. The engineers claimed we'd hardly notice the football-field-sized bowl. "Except," I wrote then, "when it rains hard, at which time, users of Overton Park would probably notice a large, 18-foot-deep lake in the Greensward. Or afterward, a large, muddy, trash-filled depression."