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Opinion: Voter ID Laws are the New Poll Tax

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As a liberal, I spend a lot of time talking in favor of taxation and the role that well-considered revenue plays in strengthening our country.

Well, I finally found a tax I don't like: the tax that Texas is seeking to implement on citizens seeking to vote.

Yesterday, Attorney General Holder deemed the Texas Voter ID Law a "poll tax," a charged accusation that is absolutely true. Though the AG seemed to go off-script in his commentary, this is exactly what every defender of democratic rights should call the Texas policy and the other similar efforts across the country that seek to disenfranchise voters.

There's plenty wrong with our election system that should get us steamed. We should be upset that many voting machines are less reliable than ATMs, that long lines often discourage voters, that Tuesday elections make it difficult for people who work far from home. We should be upset that states are purging voters so casually (or deviously) that people of color are disproportionately denied the right to vote. We should be concerned that formerly incarcerated Americans, who have served their time and have reentered our country as working, tax-paying citizens, often can't retrieve their voting rights.

We should be furious that politicians in many states are working to make it harder to register, not easier.

These are problems of access, of citizens facing obstacles to practicing what every civics class tells us is the basic right of living in a democratic society. Despite the hysteria, voter fraud and registration fraud are not the problems. People aren't voting as Mickey Mouse. Undocumented workers aren't being picked up at Home Depot parking lots and brought to the polls. And where those occasional cases are found, they have been demonstrated to be so few and far between that they can hardly be considered a serious, systemic threat.

Yet Voter ID laws is the favorite solution-without-a-problem for conservatives today, with the right-wing think-tank ALEC cultivating similar laws across the country before public pressure forced it to back away. The damage was already done, though, with many states making access to the polls stricter.

All of which has created more problems than the laws have solved. There are many citizens who don't have a driver's license or birth certificate, or for whom tracking one down is a costly and time-consuming process (quick: where and how would you get a replacement copy of your birth certificate if you lost yours, and how much would it cost you?). These citizens are more often poor, elderly or from minority communities. Among the younger citizens affected are students whose student IDs don't count as ID—even though a gun-owner's permit does.

We are proud of a history that has included greater and greater enfranchisement, and a tradition of striking down barriers to entry. Why would we turn our back on that American legacy? Furthermore, our nation's experience has shown that when people seek to limit access, they have done so to target communities they don't like. A new law would have to pass a high bar to prove it's not, intentionally or unintentionally, having that same effect.

Fox News will probably explode with calls for Holder to retract his comments. He shouldn't. If you are fighting to deny people the right to vote, you're on the same side of history as literacy tests. And if you require something that will cost voters, you are implementing a poll tax. And that's a tax all Americans, liberals and conservatives, oppose.