Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Poll Taxes in a Post-racial Era: Voter Identification Laws

Larycia Hawkins


by Larycia Hawkins


When black members of Congress became elected in relatively descriptive numbers, scholars declared that we had entered the post-civil rights era.  They argued that the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 meant black legislators could divert their focus away from the vagaries of the American Apartheid and focus upon politics as usual (even if much of those politics continued to be framed by racial commitments and categories and even though black politicians’ very place in office was solidified by racial constituents).

When Barack Obama became President, many pundits and scholars alike sounded the death knell for racism, affirmative action, diversity and multicultural initiatives, black politics, driving while black, etc.  The Cosby Show had materialized in our midst. 

Yet despite his campaign strategy of racial transcendence, minorities were crucial to Obama’s electoral success, and race reared its predictable head in the early days of his presidency—as demonstrated in the famed White House “beer summit” in 2009 between black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, the white officer who erroneously arrested Gates as a burglar in his own home, and the post-racial President who was beholden to admit, albeit begrudgingly and tacitly, that race still matters.

In fact, race remains an indelible part of the American experience.  In a purported post-civil rights era, poll taxes are prolific.  Today, they are masked as voter identification laws requiring photo identification—already on the books in 15 states.  According the National Conference of State Legislatures, at the outset of 2011, 27 states had voter identification laws that did not require photo identification, but 14 of those 27 states considered legislation to require photo identification.   Most or all of these laws have the effect of disenfranchising vulnerable populations—minority voters, elderly voters, legal immigrants, and new citizens.  Of course, such efforts are framed as eradicating election fraud and other abuses at the polls.

States are rightfully concerned with election fraud, but states also have an affirmative duty to guard the franchise for all citizens.  According to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, 11% of U.S. citizens do not possess photo identification.  The elderly and the poor are more likely than other groups to lack valid photo identification for the purpose of voting, including 25% of African-American voting-age citizens, 18% of citizens over the age of 65, and 15% of citizens who earn less than $35,000 per year. With regard to proof of citizenship, a full 7% of American citizens do not have documents that prove their citizenship. 

Christians are obligated to uphold justice for the oppressed—especially the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien.  In 2011, in a post-civil rights era and a post-racial landscape, voting remains a particular hardship for minorities, for the elderly, and for new citizens and legal permanent residents given both historical and structural exigencies.  Without rehearsing the dismal failure of the Fifteenth Amendment qua Reconstruction or retracing the contours of Jim Crow practices, we can turn to recent history—specifically the difficulty with which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was renewed in 2006.  For legal permanent residents, photo identification laws are a double-whammy given that some states have taken measures in recent years to restrict their ability to obtain and retain a driver’s license—a requirement for voting in the few municipal elections in which they can participate.  The elderly—for whom voting is often a physical hardship—are further hamstrung by photo identification requirements.

Christians must consider these legislative proposals in light of their timing and context.  Why such a flurry of photo identification activity?  A black President threatens to darken the door of the White House again, but his victory will be predicated on the turnout of minorities and the poor.  A majority minority looms large, and xenophobic policies have proliferated as a result.  Christians, called to be innocent as doves and as wise as serpents, must see the new poll taxes for what they are: unjust weapons of racial, class, and cultural warfare.

Christians should think in terms of their citizenship always.  Our citizenship requires us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.  If we take seriously the imago Dei, we believe that people are more than their “mug shot.”  Perhaps justice requires laws that facilitate voting by the poor, the elderly, the minority, and the alien—those most likely to lack photo identification—rather than problematizing voting by enacting a new poll tax.

—Larycia Hawkins is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College.  She participated in the Civitas program at the Center for Public Justice in 2002.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”