Opinion

If Democrats want to fight voter suppression, they should pay for people to get IDs

Republicans are creating Jim Crow Lite. If Democrats can't beat them, they'll have to find novel ways to get out the vote.

Here's an amazing fact: Candidates and outside groups spent $117 million on the 2014 Senate race in North Carolina alone. Eight Senate races cleared the $50 million mark, a sum that would have about covered an entire presidential race in 1996. Much of that came from the shadowy super PACs of conservatives, but a great deal also came from wealthy liberals, particularly environmentalists.

Green-minded gazillionaire Tom Steyer personally dropped $57 million on the 2014 midterms, as part of a coalition of environmental groups that spent $85 million in total, according to The New York Times. While the effort may have helped environmental groups build a nexus of "climate voters" for future elections, it didn't help Democrats get elected. People have given Steyer a lot of grief for wasting that money, though I would cut him some slack for trying and failing rather than sitting the election out.

But with all that cash in play, I have another suggestion for wealthy liberals who want to mobilize the liberal electorate: pay people's poll taxes.

Republicans have implemented a raft of voter suppression measures in states they control, with the idea of discouraging voting among Democratic-leaning constituencies. It works quite well. The measures include disenfranchising felons, banning same-day registration, reducing voting hours, limiting early voting, and requiring identification to cast a ballot.

The latter is a straightforward revival of the poll tax, a Jim Crow–era fee that had to be paid to vote, the point being to deny the franchise to the (largely black) poor. For voters who don't have ID (especially a photo version), acquiring one is expensive. Indeed, it is more expensive than the poll taxes from the Jim Crow days.

Of course, the best way to counteract voter ID laws is to either strike them down in the courts or ban them in state legislatures. Such laws are clearly unconstitutional — really, there's a whole constitutional amendment dedicated solely to banning poll taxes — and Democrats should do their utmost not to confer any legitimacy on them.

But if these laws continue to stand the next time a national election rolls around, then wealthy liberals ought to consider conducting voter registration drives in states with expensive voter ID requirements and paying the fees for people who don't have the required ID. It would directly help people exercise their right to vote.

Any such operation would have to be nonpartisan. Otherwise opponents could accuse liberals of vote-buying. But if these drives mostly help Democrats, that's only because the poll taxes are targeting them in the first place.

At any rate, liberals shouldn't worry too much about the ethics. The American electoral system has arguably never been more corrupt. As Steve Randy Waldman has written, the quiet corruption that permeates American society today is in many ways worse than explicit graft:

A guy gives you a suitcase of hundred-dollar bills that you hide in your freezer in exchange for a legislative favor. That's vulgar, and illegal. But the same gentleman hints in conversation that, should you ever choose to "leave public service," his firm would be excited to hire someone with your connections and expertise — expertise that, it needn't be said, ought naturally be reflected in legislative choices! — and that is tasteful, normal, legal. Those jobs are worth a lot more than a suitcase full of C-notes. [Interfluidity]

In other words, the system is already rigged. Conservatives have only made it worse by pushing through Jim Crow Lite policies. Sometimes, if you can't beat them, you have to join them.

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