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Can We Have a Nonpartisan Discussion About Voting Rights?

General Counsel/Director of Government Affairs

Leave it to the lawyer to start a blog post with a legal disclaimer.  As General Counsel to the Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy, a 501(c)(3), this blog post is about voting rights.  Period.  We do not care about political parties.  We do not care about this issue because we secretly think it helps one party.  There are no lines in which to read between.  Seriously, stop it.  Partisan adjectives should not precede religious nouns. When the faith community ceases to be the conscience of the state, we’ve failed miserably. 

When I was home for Christmas, I found my great-grandmother’s poll tax receipt while helping my grandparents clean up an old shed.  I love history.  I’m the grandchild that isn’t just being polite when listening to old stories.  Naturally, I was fascinated and surprised to learn about the burden of the poll tax on my white great-grandparents especially during the Depression. 

Every year, Texas Impact (and now TICPP) put on the Legislative Event for the United Methodist Women.  Last January, we asked if any of them had memories of the poll tax they would like to share.  Their stories are terrific.  Before hearing these stories, my impression was that the poll tax was designed to disenfranchise African Americans in the South.   It did, but as the stories of the Methodist women from differing racial backgrounds revealed, that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Texas did not make voting rights contingent upon paying the poll tax until a whole generation after Reconstruction in 1901.  Despite having a majority since 1873, the democratically dominated legislatures repeatedly rejected disenfranchising poll tax legislation throughout this time period.  Texas also never passed literacy tests or grandfather clauses. 

None of this suggests post-Reconstruction Texas lacked serious racial issues.  It only suggests Texas marginalized racial minorities in other ways.  African Americans only made up 25% of the population with a steady flow of American and European immigrants continuing to decrease their proportions in the population.  Redistricting, vigilante intimidation and white primaries successfully marginalized minority interests. 

The serious threat to Democratic hegemony after Reconstruction came from small farmers during the Agrarian Revolt of the 1890s.  Throughout the last quarter of the 19th century, a series of economic calamities threatened the livelihood of small tenant and land owning farmers terrified of being reduced to sharecropping.  The Democratic “establishment” was made up of bankers, railroads, merchants and large landowners.  All prospered from a “crop-lien” system designed to provide credit to these farmers.  Farmers were the largest voting block.  The establishment provided the money.  Their interests were not always aligned. 

The depression of the early 1890s highlighted those fault lines and split the party.  Democrats failed to include in their party platform several issues important to farmers.  Some farmers stayed in the party.  Others splintered and formed the most successful third party in Texas history known as “The People’s Party,” or Populists. 

At their zenith, Populists held 22 of 127 House seats and 35% of the gubernatorial vote.  While far from a majority, the tumult caused within the Democratic Party pressured elected officials to ignore the party’s official platform and toward the farmers’ “reform agenda.”  Tacking toward farmers’ issues undercut the populist base of support, and with an improvement in the economy at the end of the decade, the Populists suffered crushing defeats in the election of 1900.  Firmly back in control, Democrats made voting contingent upon paying the poll tax. 

In 1890, voter turnout had been close to 80% of registered voters.  After the poll tax was instituted, turnout by whites dropped to 50% and turnout by blacks plummeted to 15%.  The Democratic establishment simultaneously undercut a third party resurrection, reduced the number of primary voters in the reform wing of their party, and reduced the Republican threat by nearly eliminating black voters from the general election. 

The poll tax provision remained Texas law until 1966.  Harper v. Virginia State Bd. Of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966) extended the 24th Amendment’s poll taxes prohibition to the states.  The Supreme Court in Harper reaffirmed the long standing Constitutional principle that voting is a fundamental right – a right so fundamental that all other rights depend on it.  In law, all rights have exceptions, but a fundamental right is the closest thing that exists to an absolute right.  The Court went on to rule that wealth is totally irrelevant in determining whether a person is qualified to vote. 

Though not a constitutional challenge, the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. relied on Harper when saying the Texas Voter ID law violated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.  The Court found that due to cost and logistical difficulties, the State was effectively “forcing poor citizens to choose between wages and the franchise [which] unquestionably denies or abridges their right to vote.”  ($22 for a birth certificate, 81 of 254 counties lacking a DPS drivers license office, and having to drive over 200 miles to a DPS office not open on weekends and closed by 6 p.m.)

Looking at census data, the D.C Court found that racial minorities (vital to a Section 5 challenge) are disproportionately poor in Texas (25.8% for Hispanics and 23.3% for African Americans compared to 8.8% for whites).  When it comes to owning a motor vehicle, the numbers are similar.  Thus, the burden of purchasing a birth certificate or driving 200 miles (or paying for the gas) to the nearest DPS office to obtain a photo ID falls more heavily on minorities, and thus may not be “pre-cleared” under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

I must confess, it’s hard for me to understand as a middle class white male how someone can function in society without a photo ID.  Nevertheless, I know it is a serious problem for many of our low-income neighbors.  When I was in seminary, I worked at the homeless shelter of the Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Atlanta.  We helped people get photo identification.  Our services were in high demand.  People lined up before sunrise outside the doors of the church.  The reason for Central Presbyterian’s popularity wasn’t the awesome skills of their pseudo-volunteer workforce of seminary students there for a degree program requirement.  It was because Central Presbyterian covered the costs. 

For low-income people, what seemed relatively simple was a bureaucratic nightmare.  With government databases, the problem wasn’t verifying people’s identities.  It was the cost.  There was the transportation to get to the church, then a filing fee to get a birth certificate, a computer was required to download the application which then required printing, then there was postage to send it to the agency, then sometimes additional documentation was required with corresponding fees and postage, then there was the issue of agencies not wanting to take cash by mail so we used the church’s checking account, then the transportation back up to the church to pick it up (if they lacked an address), then the transportation to the Department of Motor Vehicles across town, and transportation back home (if they had one). 

In a democracy, it’s the people who decide, and that process is by voting.  Who is allowed to vote reveals who really matters in society.  Voting is not a privilege, but the most fundamental of rights.  So who really matters to the faith community?  Or conversely, who does the faith community think should be denied the most fundamental of rights?  I find those questions awkward when the tenants of my faith teach me that the greatest commandment is to love my neighbor as I love God and myself; that in God’s Kingdom the last shall be first and first shall be last; that there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave nor free; and with parables like persistent widows that stand up to unjust judges. 

The better question for the faith community to ask is how do we ensure elections are both fair and no one is deprived of a fundamental right?  First, we have to make the distinction between what makes a voter qualified (minor dependents and residency) as opposed to whether we think that voter is worthy (can’t afford a birth certificate or transportation).  Second, we have to make sure the means of verifying qualification does not preclude anyone who is actually qualified.  Third, we ensure officials have the proper resources (i.e. taxes) to investigate and prosecute fraud.  After all, we don’t throw everyone in jail who might possibly commit a crime just to be sure a crime is never committed. 

See all Civic Engagement post.