On January 23, 2013, Rep. James Clyburn (D.SC) along with Representatives John Lewis (D.GA), Marcia Fudge (D.OH) and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D. MD) along with others re-introduced and consolidated several bills and named them the Voter Empowerment Act. The Voter Empowerment Act contains three main parts: improving access to the ballot, protecting integrity and ensuring accountability. More than a dozen states passed laws making it more difficult for citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote, in the past several years. Rep. Clyburn says: “The right to vote should be the birthright of every American…. We urgently need to update our federal laws to safeguard the sacred right of American citizens to vote.”
Coincidently on the same day that the Voter Empowerment bill was introduced, the 24th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1964. The 24th amendment abolished the practice of poll taxes. On February 3, 1870 black men were given the right to vote, yet for almost 100 years afterwards, blacks were systematically denied the right to vote in many southern states, due to poll tax laws. It has only been 49 years since the poll tax was abolished by the ratification of the 24th amendment which states:
Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.
In 1966, VA, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi still had poll tax laws. Eight states including Georgia and South Carolina refused to ratify the 24th amendment.
In all, 34 states in recent years passed some type of voter ID laws making it more difficult and costly for African Americans and other minorities to vote. Many of these laws amount to a modern day poll tax. Rep. Clyburn says that in introducing the Voter Empowerment Act, “will end recently enacted creative devices that constitute a modern version of the poll tax.”
There is an uncanny parallel with the new voter ID laws to the former poll tax laws. Just like the poll tax laws, there is a cost to vote where voter ID laws are strictly imposed. Although the government issued ID needed to vote is free, the certified birth certificate or passport needed to obtain one costs money. And there is additional cost to obtain even more documents, in those cases where a name change is involved due to marriage or divorce, as in the case of roughly 90 percent of marriages.
The only difference in the abolished poll tax and the new voter laws requiring ID that bears a cost is in the name. Yet, a poll tax by any other name is still the same. I applaud Rep. Clyburn, Steny Hoyer and the others for introducing the bill and recognizing the cost effects to many of the newly enacted state voter ID laws. It is now before the 113th Congress.