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Jabari Asim: Jim Crow Poll Tax 2.0

Jabari Asim
Columnist
Jabari Asim is an associate professor of Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson College in Boston and the executive editor of The Crisis, the NAACP’s flagship journal of politics, ideas and cultureHis…
Jabari Asim

GOP’ers say it’s just a coincidence that Democratic voters are the ones most likely to be disenfranchised by new photo ID requirements at the voting booths. Yeah, and I’ve got some fertile Missouri mules to sell you.


WASHINGTON — “It was not a difficult walk. It was for a good reason.”

Those were the words of Besisa Mbaguna, a Congolese man who last month walked barefoot for two and a half hours to reach his polling place and cast his vote in his country’s elections. Considering Congo’s troubled history and its oppressive ruling class, it’s fair to marvel that people such as Mbaguna got to vote at all. One can also wonder whether those votes will actually count, despite the best efforts of United Nations officials who oversaw the elections.

It’s easy to imagine, for instance, that in such a country, Mbaguna could have been stopped short of the polls and turned away for some untenable reason — say, lack of a photo ID. In Congo, sure, but certainly not in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Or so one would like to think. But the efforts of Republican lawmakers in Georgia, Indiana and, most recently, Missouri seemed aimed at making it as difficult to vote beneath our spacious skies as it is in war-torn Third World nations. Missouri, my home state, became the third member of this notorious trio in June, when Gov. Matt Blunt signed into law a requirement that voters show government-issued photo IDs at the polls starting in November.

Blunt and others say the law will prevent fraud. Their opponents rightly point out that the measure disproportionately affects those who have been disfranchised in the past, such as the poor and racial minorities. Besides, they argue, Missouri hasn’t exactly suffered from an epidemic of imposters showing up to vote.

As one of the lawsuits filed to block the measure puts it, “It is statistically more likely for a Missourian to be struck by a bolt of lightning than to have his or her vote canceled by someone posing as another voter to cast a ballot.”

Lower-income Missourians will have to fork over their feeble funds to buy the documents needed to get the ID cards, which will be free. That most of those folks tend to vote Democratic is just a coincidence, proponents of the cards contend. Right, and I have some nice fertile Missouri mules for sale.

Two of the state’s Democratic congressmen, William “Lacy” Clay Jr. of St. Louis and Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City, are among those supporting the lawsuits. Cleaver said the law’s “sole intention is to disenfranchise and reduce the number of citizens allowed to vote.” Clay called the measure “nothing more than a 21st-century poll tax.”

His reference to Jim Crow-era tactics used to stop African-Americans at the polls takes on additional resonance in the wake of last month’s extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. When President Bush signed the legislation, he impressively asserted “the right of ordinary men and women to determine their own political future.”

That eloquent comment acquires no small share of irony when one recalls that last year Bush’s Justice Department approved Georgia’s photo ID measure. That law, like the poll taxes of days gone by, would place a modern-day hurdle between ordinary folks and that vaunted future the president memorably invoked. Georgia’s ID requirement has since been blocked in both state and federal courts, which ruled that it imposed unnecessary burdens on voters. (A district judge in Indiana ruled in favor of that state’s law. Her decision is under appeal.)

The voting-rights extension that Bush signed had been passed over the objections of a stubborn faction of Southern Republicans, including Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, who claimed “we have repented, and we have reformed.” Where voter-ID laws fit into that reform is a mystery to me.

I’m fairly sure that nobody in the United States has to journey barefoot for hours to cast a vote. Compared with the ordeals of Besisa Mbaguna and his countrymen, simply acquiring a photo ID is a walk in the park. But it is a hurdle nonetheless, especially if you’re poor. Given our nation’s anemic Election Day turnouts, discouragement is the last thing a prospective voter needs. If anything, our state governments should be looking for ways to bring more citizens to the polls, not fewer.

Gov. Blunt has described the new law as a new way to build public trust in elections. He no doubt is familiar with our state’s most popular expression: I’m from Missouri, you have to show me.

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