Democrats see election laws as revival of poll tax and threat to democratic process

A wave of state election laws poses the single greatest threat to democracy and civil rights in generations, a number of House Democratic leaders charged Monday.

The lawmakers said the reform laws — including new voter ID and registration requirements — are politically motivated efforts from Republicans to suppress voter turnout, particularly in minority communities that tend to vote Democratic. They compare the new mandates to the poll taxes adopted by Southern states to discourage African-Americans from voting after the Civil War.

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“We know that voter suppression has been taking place, is [taking] place and is planned [to affect the next election],” Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said Monday during a Capitol Hill hearing on the new laws. “We are witnessing a concerted effort to place new obstacles in front of minorities, low-income families and young people who seek to exercise their right to vote.

“A poll tax by another name,” Hoyer added, “would smell as vile.”

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), sounded a similar note, warning that states are “turning back the clock” to “ugly periods … where discrimination was commonplace.”

“As elected officials — whether local, state or federal — it is our obligation to not only encourage our constituents to vote, but to ensure the voting process is easy,” Cleaver said. Congress, he added, “cannot stand idly by as states enact laws that disproportionately harm people of color, youth, low-income individuals, the elderly and a host of others.”

At issue are a slew of state laws adopted this year to prevent voter fraud. At least five states have adopted new photo ID requirements that will be in place next November, according to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. Two states adopted stringent restrictions on voter registration drives, Brennan found, and three others have shortened the period that allows voters to vote early if they can’t get to the polls.

Last week, voters in Maine repealed a Republican law prohibiting voter registration on the day of elections.

Supporters of the state laws argue that voter fraud scandals — most prominently the one surrounding the now-defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) — show that the changes are necessary to protect the integrity of the election process.

“How much more widespread would you have to be than operations going on in nearly all, if not all, of the 50 states, the major cities and millions of dollars spent to pay people to go out and fraudulently register voters?” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said on the House floor earlier this month.

Democrats and voting-rights groups counter that instances of voter fraud have been vastly overstated as a ruse to put new restrictions in place.

“Evidence for such widespread fraud does not exist,” Hoyer said. “The evidence we do have points to a political agenda on the part of those who are crafting these new rules. The right to vote should and must not depend on the politics of the day, but on eligibility.”

Critics of the state laws point to Texas, where student IDs are not recognized at the polls but permits allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons are.

“You would have to be a mean-spirited and ideologically warped individual to think that is fair,” Cleaver said.