Friday, October 17, 2008

"Voter fraud" = poll tax revisited

By Nancy Jane Moore

Remember the poll tax? It was a fee charged for registering to vote and it existed in the United States up to the mid-1960s, when it was outlawed by a Constitutional Amendment and subsequent Supreme Court decisions.

The poll tax was clearly designed to keep poor people -- and particularly African Americans -- from voting. Sometimes the rules were even written in such a way as to only charge those people. And it was often accompanied by literacy tests, which were generally incredibly difficult if you were someone the powers that be didn't want to vote.

The Republican cries of voter fraud are just a more sophisticated version of the poll tax. They know that illegal voter registrations are not a big problem in this country, and they also know that if they scare people into thinking they might have done something wrong, they'll keep them from voting.

There's a long history, even here in the so-called land of the free, of methods of keeping ordinary people from voting. The first elections only allowed men who owned real estate to vote. Eventually, the vote was given to all white men. After the Civil War, it was ostensibly expanded to male former slaves, though anyone who's followed the history of the Civil Rights Movement knows it took until the 1960s for that to become a reality.

Outside of a few places -- like Wyoming -- women in the US didn't have the vote until 1920. (There are still women alive today who didn't have the right to vote when they were born.) The age was finally dropped to 18 from 21 in the early 1970s.

In all these cases, it took a real fight to expand the right to vote to all adult citizens, because the power structure never favors wider voting rights. Women, poor people, African Americans, young people -- they all bring wild cards and new agendas into the equation.

Now that everybody gives lip service to universal suffrage, the right has come up with voter fraud allegations as a way to discourage participation. Given that the actual challenges to election outcomes from the 2000 and 2004 elections involved voting machine irregularities that seemed to favor Republicans, this "voter fraud" campaign smacks of serious hypocrisy.

You know, in past years people complained about the poor participation in US elections -- fifty percent of registered voters is often considered a good turnout -- complete with editorials that would note how other nations had hundred percent participation. But now that it looks like people who never before bothered to vote are registering, the Republicans cry fraud instead of applauding.

The New York Times sums up the issue well: "The real threats to the fabric of democracy are the unreasonable barriers that stand in the way of eligible voters casting ballots."

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