Constitution Daily

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Troubled history of polling rights fuels voter ID battle

August 22, 2012 by Scott Bomboy


Do you think the Constitution gave all Americans the right to vote? Not by a long shot. The current voter ID debate is fueled by more than 225 years of struggles over who can vote in elections.


24th Amendment is signed, outlawing the poll tax

In 2012, the voter eligibility debate is over new state-issued rules that require strict forms of identification at the polls. Voter ID supporters say the laws will stop election fraud; opponents say voter ID laws impose burdens on poor, elderly, and disabled voters.


Occasionally, the words “poll tax” are tossed into the debate by voter ID opponents, including recent statements from Attorney General Eric Holder. But how many current voters even know what the poll tax meant, or how long it took for a massive expansion of our electorate?


In September 1787, the constitutional framers left the details about voting to the states. They did establish a framework to elect the president and Congress, using indirect elections for the chief executive and the Senate. But voting rights aren’t part of the original, unamended Constitution.


By some estimates, only 10 percent to 16 percent of Americans were eligible to vote in early elections, because states limited voting rights to white, adult males who owned property (and in some cases, who could pass religious tests).


Compare that to 2008, when 65 percent of eligible people in the United States were registered to vote.


Until the Civil War, the fight over voters’ rights was about how many white male adult voters each state would allow to cast ballots and if they had to own property.


Then in the aftermath of the Civil War, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1870, saying the right to vote—at least in theory—could not “be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Poll taxes and literacy tests

In practice, states had tools like literacy tests and the poll tax to keep blacks and other voters from the polls. Literacy tests were actually developed in the North before the Civil War to bar Irish immigrants from voting.


The poll tax was used as part of a set of Jim Crow state laws that targeted blacks. States used “grandfathered” clauses to allow poorer white votes to skip the tax.


The 15th Amendment also didn’t apply to women or Native Americans, and it took more than two generations to change that.


In the wake of Prohibition, the 19th Amendment in 1920 gave women the right to vote, and in 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act extended voting rights in federal elections to all Native Americans.


In 1943, Congress repealed an act that barred Chinese immigrants the right to vote and become citizens.


Still, the battle raged on as civil rights advocates sought realistic voting rights for minorities, particularly in the South.


The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1957 set up a federal commission to investigate voter discrimination. In 1964, the 24th Amendment was passed to prohibit poll taxes. The landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 expanded efforts to protect minority voters.


In 1966, the Supreme Court, in the case of Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, effectively eliminated poll taxes in state elections, expanding the ban on poll taxes in federal elections established by the 24th Amendment.


It took nearly another decade for the courts to end literacy tests.


Also, in 1971 the 26th Amendment extended voting rights to people who are at least 18 years of age.


Another key landmark was the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which requires polling places to offer access for disabled voters.


The debate today is centered on a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld Indiana’s voter ID law.


In the case of Crawford v. Marion County, the Court said Indiana had the right to require government-issued photo IDs at the polls, and that the state had a right to take efforts to prevent voter fraud.


The court also rejected the idea that a burden was placed on voters who needed to gather documents to get a free photo ID.


The current voter ID cases involve lawsuits in Pennsylvania and Texas, and a voter referendum in Minnesota in November.


The Pennsylvania ruling was the latest in a string of legal victories for the supporters of voter ID.


Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.


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