Speaking at the NAACP Convention earlier this week in Houston, Texas, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that he believes that Texas' Senate Bill 14 ("SB 14"), which requires voters to show state issued photo identification when they head to the polls, is equivalent to a poll tax and indicated that the Justice Department "will not allow political pretexts to disenfranchise American citizens of their most precious right."
While Holder's statements received rousing applause from the 600 member NACCP contingent he addressed, his words have been viewed as political rhetoric by some members of the conservative base, who contend that he is playing the race card. But even putting politics aside, when considering the potential effects of SB 14, it is hard not to be reminded of a time not so long ago when southern states enacted poll taxes which achieved the desired result of disenfranchising potential African-American and Native-American voters.
Indeed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is the law the Justice Department contends SB 14 runs afoul to, was enacted to combat those restrictive policies and to ensure that minorities could exercise their right to vote freely and were not disenfranchised by a biased and burdensome statutory scheme. Clearly, the Voting Rights Act was enacted to combat what was blatant suppression and exclusion of particular classes of individuals at the voting booth. And while SB 14 might not have been borne out of the same unashamed exclusionary framework that characterized the restrictive poll taxes employed in the late 19th century, the law may have similar restrictive and exclusionary effects.
SB 14 requires voters to provide state-issued photo identification. While the law sounds unbiased on its face, when you examine the underlying demographical statistics of the State of Texas you quickly identify a trend of potential disproportionate disenfranchisement of particular groups of individuals, whom mainly consist of the underserved and underrepresented members of our communities namely minorities, the poor, disabled, elderly and those in rural areas.
The federal trial brought by the State of Texas regarding SB 14 (State of Texas v. Holder) began on Monday and during opening arguments the Justice Department cited statistics that indicate as many as 1.4 million voters lack any form of acceptable identification per SB 14 requirements. And of those 1.4 million voting age citizens, the NAACP has confirmed that 25% of them are African-Americans, 16% are Latinos and 8% are White. And while the State of Texas does provide free photo identification cards for those seeking them to vote, they would have to be obtained in person, a burden for many residents, especially those in isolated regions and for those who might find it hard to miss work and lose pay.
In fact, the Federal Government has indicated that 81 of the Texas' 254 counties do not have offices where people can get the required cards. Indeed, statistics clearly indicate that SB 14 could suppress minority voter turnout by 3% to 5% and the Justice Department said Hispanic registered voters in Texas are 46.5% to 120% more likely than a non-Hispanic registered voter to lack the required identification. However, what is even more perplexing than these staggering statistics, which clearly conclude that the proposed law will be harmful to minority voters, is that under SB 14, a concealed handgun license would serve as acceptable identification to vote, but a student I.D. would not.
Texas legislators hailed SB 14 as a safeguard to eliminate voter fraud and ensure the integrity of the ballot box. However, Texas has yet to see a real scandal involving identity fraud at the voting booth and Obama Administration officials have concluded there is little evidence of voter fraud in Texas warranting the legislative changes. Indeed, in testimony given on Monday, State representatives provided far from convincing evidence to support their claim of voter fraud, but instead alluded to the fact that clerical and other mistakes are causal factors that contribute to errors at the polls. While instances of such voter fraud are extremely rare at best, every significant study of the potential effects of SB 14, indicate that the law would disproportionately affect minority, poor, disabled and elderly voters - the very population whose voting rights are the most vulnerable and whose rights should be protected, rather than attacked.
It is vital that SB 14 is examined and judged by the potential and obvious outcomes its implementation would produce, which will undoubtedly be to disproportionally disenfranchise and abridge the right of certain classes of American citizens to exercise their most precious right to vote. Certainly sounds reminiscent of a poll tax to me.
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