Within hours of the Supreme Court ruling, conservative states announced they would enact laws that would directly affect minority voter turnout. (Vox Efx/Flickr)

Dust Off Those Poll Tax Laws, Dixie

The Supreme Court has threatened our most basic right, to the delight of conservatives.

BY Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President

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As history has shown, radical Republicans won’t be content with stealing the vote from the black guy down the street or that Latina woman at church or the college student next door or the senior citizen who relinquished his driver’s license. They’re coming for your right, too.

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court gave Dixie throwbacks license to resume intimidating minority voters, diluting black and Latino balloting districts and instituting the 21st century version of poll taxes—that being excessive and expensive voter ID requirements. 

The radical right-wing members of the court led by Chief Justice John Roberts eviscerated the venerable Voting Rights Act. They said the law’s preemptive federal enforcement of voting rights in nine states that have long, shameful records of egregious violations unfairly singles them out—discriminates against them, so to speak.

Now those states can do whatever they want. Texas and South Carolina quickly announced they would immediately institute costly voter ID requirements previously forbidden as discriminatory under the terms of the Voting Rights Act.

Free to poll tax; free to poll tax; thank John Almighty, Dixie’s free to poll tax.

If some black or Latino voter in those nine states feels a costly new voter ID law or redistricting violates his or her civil rights, that individual must challenge the authority and resources of an entire state by filing a lawsuit. Or persuade the U.S. Attorney General to do it.

The conservative majority on the Supreme Court said it’s better for that citizen to be denied his most basic human right in a democracy—his right to vote—while waiting years for the outcome of his case than for nine states with histories of blatant illegal discrimination to be subjected to federal preclearance of their proposed voting laws.

This ruling sanctions voter suppression. Roberts concedes in his decision that states and municipalities continue to discriminate against minority voters. Then he destroys the only method Congress ever found to thwart it. As the last Presidential election clearly showed, African-American and Latino citizens lean heavily Democrat. Republicans have no intention of crafting policies that would appeal to those voters. Instead, the GOP intends to shut them up. John Roberts gave the GOP a hand, a big hand to clasp over the mouths of minorities.

This plan to stop Democrats from voting is more than 40 years old. Paul Weyrich, a founder of the conservative movement and a leader in creating both the right-wing Heritage Foundation and the so-called Moral Majority, told his followers this in 1974:

“Now many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome. Good Government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote…our [right-wingers’] leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” 

Simple. Straight forward. Just stop the opponent—in this case Democrats—from voting. And that is what voter ID, pushed now by another group Weyrich helped to form, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), is all about. Numerous studies have shown voter ID laws are more likely to disenfranchise African-Americans, Latinos, poor people, students, and women, all of whom are more likely to vote Democrat.

The Texas ID law requires expensive and time-consuming efforts by citizens who don’t have specific forms of identification such as a Texas photo driver’s license or concealed handgun permit. Texas will offer a free Election Identification Certificate, but to get it, citizens will have to present specific forms of identification that can be costly and difficult to obtain, such as a birth certificate, which in Texas costs $22. In addition, to get the election ID card, a citizen must show up at a driver’s license center in person, and a third of Texas counties—70 of them—don’t have centers.

South Carolina proposed a similar law. Federal officials blocked both because they would disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters, a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Within hours of John Roberts’ gutting the Voting Rights Act, state attorneys general in Texas and South Carolina announced their states would immediately implement the biased laws.

Suing to resolve these inequities doesn’t work, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent. She quoted a previous ruling:

“Voting suits are unusually onerous to prepare…Litigation  has been exceedingly slow…Even when favorable decisions have finally been obtained, some of the States affected have merely switched to discriminatory devices not covered by the federal decrees or have enacted difficult new tests designed to prolong the existing disparity between white and Negro registration. Alternatively, certain local officials have defied and evaded court orders or have simply closed their registration offices to freeze the voting rolls.”

The Voting Rights Act succeeded where the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution did not. Ginsburg noted that in the five years after the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, almost as many African-Americans registered to vote in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina as had during the entire century following the Civil War. 

The progress in the nine states, where now the percentage of African-Americans registered and voting sometimes exceeds that of whites, does not, however, justify ending the scrutiny. When a river polluted by industrial waste recovers sufficiently to support fish, regulations outlawing dumping aren’t eliminated.  That would result in backsliding.

Ginsburg predicted backsliding on voting rights. With the act in place, the justice department in recent years blocked implementation of numerous proposed laws that would have denied or abridged the right to vote on account of race or color.

Some of these were sneaky “second generation” barriers. They include, Ginsberg wrote, redrawing legislative districts to segregate the races and switching to at-large voting to dilute the potency of minority citizens clustered in districts.

For example, under the Voting Rights Act, federal officials rejected Texas redistricting because they determined it was “a deliberate, race-conscious method to manipulate not simply the Democratic vote but, more specifically, the Hispanic vote.”

And as history has shown, radical Republicans won’t be content with stealing the vote from the black guy down the street or that Latina woman at church or the college student next door or the senior citizen who relinquished his driver’s license. They’re coming for your right, too.

To be free at last, all citizens must exercise their full rights. Primary among them is the right to vote. Congress must guarantee it.


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Leo Gerard is international president of the United Steelworkers Union, part of the AFL-CIO. The son of a union miner; Gerard started working at a nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario, at age 18, and rose through the union's ranks to be appointed the seventh international president Feb. 28, 2001. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

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