In historic terms, poll taxes served to put a price on a voting and keep African Americans from getting a ballot. Poll taxes were banned from federal elections in 1964, with the ratifying of the 24th Amendment. The next year, the Voting Rights Act made the poll tax illegal in local and state elections, too.
But the poll tax – or at least the idea of having to pay money before you can vote – is making a comeback. In Mississippi, for instance, voters last month approved a constitutional amendment that says you have to show photo ID in order to vote. The IDs are free, but you need a birth certificate to get one, and those cost $15. Wisconsin also has a new law requiring you to show ID you never had to show before in order to vote; that state will also give you an ID, if you can figure out how to ask, but you have to show a birth certificate. In Wisconsin, birth certificates cost $20.
Meet Ruthelle Frank of Brokaw, Wisconsin, a village board member who was born at home and has no birth certificate. From the Wausau Daily Herald:
Though Frank never had a birth certificate, the state Register of Deeds in Madison has a record of her birth. It can generate a birth certificate for her – for a fee. Normally, the cost is $20.
“I look at that like paying a fee to vote,” Frank said.
And for Frank, that might not be the end of it. The attending physician at Frank’s birth misspelled her maiden name, which was Wedepohl. To get a birth certificate that has correct information, she will have to petition a court to amend the document – a weekslong process that could cost $200 or more.
Ms. Frank’s choices now amount to paying the money or missing her first election since 1948. She has a mild disability but says she gets around all right and won’t take an exception for being “indefinitely confined.” “That would be lying,” she says.
Governor Scott Walker has said there’s no reason to worry about the new law because the state has more people with photo ID’s than it does registered voters. Pretzel logic aside, the Wausau paper says 177,399 Wisconsin seniors don’t have driver’s licenses or photo ID’s. In Wisconsin’s 2004 election saw seven fraudulent votes out of three million, all of them felons who’d lost their voting rights. I’m not sure how requiring a photo ID would have prevented them from voting.
The presumption in voting used to be that the barriers were low because voting was sacred and everyone eligible should be given the chance to cast a ballot. It’s not the same as driving a car or buying cold medicine, as the backers of these bills like to argue. It’s voting, the house our democracy lives in.