Recently, I was going through boxes while cleaning out my mother’s house when I found something that was at once a historical relic and a timely reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same – it was her receipt for a $1.50 poll tax paid in Blount County, Alabama in 1956. Doesn’t sound like much, but in that time and place $1.50 was probably a barrier to many. I don’t know why she kept it – I’d be hard pressed to explain why she kept many things I have run across – but I am glad she did. While like many people, and especially lawyers, I am keenly aware of the renewed attacks on the voting rights of the poor and minorities, there was something different about holding this tangible evidence of discrimination in my hands. I already knew it was real, of course, but this little piece of paper brought it home in a way that I had never personally experienced.
Over the years, efforts to inhibit the votes of poor people and people of color have taken many forms and, until recently, had gone from blatant to much more subtle and more insidious. The more forthright forms of discrimination, like the poll tax, citizenship and literacy tests, and property requirements had largely been replaced by more complex things like redistricting schemes in which discriminatory intentions could be better hidden. Indeed, new progress was taking place in some areas, with extended voting days and times and voting by mail increasing people’s access to the polls. Now, particularly in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which eviscerated the preclearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act, many state and local governments are passing new restrictions with abandon. Poll tax isn’t constitutional? Well then let’s require voter ID! The difference between these two devices isn’t worthy of note. Many poor people lack a driver’s license or other form of photo ID, a fact that is well known. Even if the fee for obtaining an ID is waived, there are numerous other obstacles to obtaining one. Yet voter ID laws are all the rage now, along with new districting plans, replacing historically minority seats with at-large voting, and restrictions on polling dates and times that limit people’s ability to get to the poll to vote. Not to mention the wholesale disenfranchisement of ex-offenders.
If all of the people who are the targets of disenfranchisement efforts were able to get to the polls and vote, I wonder what would happen? Hmmmm. But so many can’t, or are too discouraged, disillusioned, or just plain tired to even try. Lawyers working pro bono must stand in the breach and fight what Hillary Clinton recently called “an unseemly rush to enact or enforce laws that will make it harder for millions of our fellow Americans to vote.” The need for litigation challenging restrictions, for advocacy to resist new restrictions, for monitoring and protecting against election violations, and for public education is vast. In her keynote address at the 2013 American Bar Association Annual Meeting, Clinton urged lawyers to join that fight, and she rejected the notion that new voting restrictions were intended as a safeguard against fraud. “Anyone who says that racial discrimination is no longer a problem in American elections must not be paying attention,” she said. Or they are, which is so much worse.