Today’s modern poll tax

Republican officials make it harder for Obama backers to vote

In his vivid feature story this week, “Freedom Summer in the segregated South” (page 20), Jaime O’Neill takes us back to Mississippi in the summer of 1964, as seen by a young woman who had the courage to defy the state’s white power structure in a historic effort to register African Americans to vote. Three of her fellow “freedom riders” were murdered shortly before she arrived in Mississippi.

Across the South, black people faced daunting barriers to voting. White election officials systematically kept them from registering by forcing them to take difficult literacy tests and making the application process inconvenient. Would-be voters were charged expensive poll taxes and all too often made victims of arson, battery and lynching.

It would be comforting to view voter suppression in the Mississippi of 1964 as a historical artifact, something we’ve put far behind us. But, as we’re seeing this year, that’s not the case. Across the country, but especially in presidential “battleground” states, Republican governors and legislatures have been erecting barriers to voting that target minorities, the young and the poor—people who are more likely to vote Democratic.

The most common method is to require voters to show a photo ID—but often only certain types of identification are allowed. This is a problem for urban people who don’t drive, those with out-of-state licenses and students with college-issued IDs. Many states require people without a sanctioned ID to present a birth certificate to obtain one.

In Pennsylvania, a key battleground state, the Transportation Department acknowledged that more than 750,000 registered voters—9.2 percent—do not have the required forms of ID to vote in November. In Philadelphia, an Obama stronghold, that figure is 18 percent. A study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law last fall put the number of those affected nationwide at more than 5 million.

In May, Florida Gov. Rick Scott ordered a purge of state voter lists based on driver’s-license records that he himself acknowledged were deeply flawed. The Miami Herald analyzed the purge results and found that 58 percent of those removed were Hispanic, 14 percent were black, and whites and Republicans were least likely to be eliminated.

The rationale commonly given for these restrictions is to eliminate voter fraud. But, according to The Washington Post, an analysis of 2,068 reported fraud cases by News21, a Carnegie-Knight investigative-reporting project, found only 10 cases of alleged voter impersonation since 2000—about one for every 15 million prospective voters.

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), one of the leaders of the Freedom Summer movement, told Democracy Now! that these purges of eligible voters made him “want to just cry, after people gave a little blood, after some people were beaten, shot and murdered trying to help people become registered voters. … We should be making it easy and simple and open up the political process and let all of the people come in.”