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House Republicans Push to Nullify Voting Rights Act

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Just weeks after reluctantly re-authorizing the Voting Rights Act (VRA), a major provision of the Civil Rights era aimed at eliminating discrimination against certain groups of voters, the Republican-controlled House moved to nullify some of the VRA's most important provisions by approving a new "poll tax" bill (H.R. 4844).

In a near party-line vote, a Republican-authored measure that would force voters to present government-issued proof of citizenship at polling places in order to cast a vote was passed Thursday, September 21.

A coalition of civil rights and liberties organizations has described the bill as an attempt at voter suppression through imposing a thinly disguised poll tax. Studies show that people of color, low-income people, individuals with disabilities, rural voters, and Native Americans are among those portions of the population who are less likely to possess photo identification, let alone identification that is proof of citizenship. Identification that can be used as proof of citizenship ï a passport or other papers ï can cost from $97 into the hundreds of dollars. Paying such a fee amounts to a poll tax.

This likely disproportionality means that the Republican-authored bill aims at disenfranchising large sections of several classes of voters, many of whom often do not support Republican candidates or policies.

But it also likely that millions of citizens who fall outside these groupings would have to pay some additional fees to obtain the right to vote. An AFL-CIO letter aimed at members of Congress pointed out that only 25% of Americans hold passports, and that the majority of state ID's do not require proof of citizenship. Therefore, most voters would be required to purchase new documentation in order to obtain the right to vote.

In a letter to the Committee on House Administration, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), a coalition of civil rights and labor organizations, stated, "no citizen should have to pay to vote."

Additionally, the LCCR argued, the requirements in H.R. 4844 allow greater discretion by polling place officials over allowing and disallowing votes, "creating opportunities for discrimination at the polls against racial, ethnic, and language minority voters."

The letter also questioned the purported rationale of supporters of the bill who claim the law is needed to decrease voter fraud. According to LCCR, voter fraud based on misrepresentation of voter identity is nearly non-existent. A League of Women Voters report indicates that voter fraud of this type was a statistically insignificant amount (.00004%) in 2002 and 2004. In Ohio, for example, out of millions of votes cast in those two election cycles, only 4 were found to fall under the type of voter fraud targeted by this bill.

This bill does nothing to deal with real incidents of voter fraud, "including improper purges of voters, distributing false information about when and where to vote, stuffing ballot boxes, and tampering with registration forms," the LCCR letter stated.

The Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Legislative Office in Washington Caroline Fredrickson said, "Less than two months after the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, the House of Representatives has chosen to pass legislation disenfranchising the very citizens the VRA was designed to protect."

Theodore M. Shaw, Director-Counsel and President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund stated, "the bill effectively transforms the vote from a right to a privilege by elevating the privileged over those citizens who will disproportionately become ensnared in this voting trap." According to Shaw, the law represents a "retreat" from democracy. Shaw echoed the LCCR's rejection of the claim that the law will prevent fraud at polls.

Even if provisions to subsidize purchasing new documentation are considered, the Republican-authored bill "elevates an administrative requirement above a constitutionally protected right. That is un-American," Shaw added.

Shaw concluded, "We remain hopeful that the Senate will fully consider the foreseeable harmful impact of this bill and cast a meaningful vote for democracy and not another disappointing vote."

A federal judge has already struck down a Georgia state poll tax law of a similar nature stating that the Constitution does not allow a state to disenfranchise a voter based on their lack of possessing a photo ID. Another federal judge declared a similar law in Washington state to be un-Constitutional. Lawsuits aimed at overturning similar laws in Missouri, Ohio, and Florida are pending.

--Joel Wendland can be reached at
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--Joel Wendland is editor of Political Affairs.
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