By Karen Shanton
The federal suit against Texas’ photo voter ID law was recently updated with a few new complaints. Among the new claims: the requirement amounts to a poll tax.
Poll tax arguments have a long history in voter ID cases, starting with the earliest suits in Georgia and Indiana. Georgia’s voter ID law originally attached a $20 fee to voter identification cards. Plaintiffs in a 2005 suit against the law (Common Cause v. Billups) charged that this violated the U.S. Constitution’s Twenty-Fourth Amendment prohibition on poll taxes. The court seemed inclined to agree and the state’s legislature hastily revised the law to provide for free ID cards.
This neutralized the argument in that case; with the direct price tag for IDs snipped, the Georgia court rejected the poll tax argument. It also helped shape future legislation. Subsequent ID proposals have consistently included provisions for free ID cards.
But these developments didn’t sideline poll tax arguments in general. ID opponents just shifted the emphasis of their arguments from primary costs of ID laws, such as Georgia’s fees, to secondary costs like the inconvenience and expense of a trip to the DMV. This secondary costs version of the argument has become a mainstay of voter ID suits, coming before courts in Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Tennessee, Wisconsin – and now Texas.
The secondary costs version of the poll tax argument can easily blur into another argument commonly levied against voter ID: ID laws unduly burden eligible voters’ right to vote (see, for example, the Missouri Supreme Court’s opinion in Weinschenk v. Missouri).
And, as it happens, Texas is a rather interesting case where this ‘undue burden’ argument is concerned. Specifically, it has some features that seem to make it more vulnerable to undue burden charges than other states where undue burden arguments have been tried (and failed). For example, Texas’ ID law is stricter – permitting fewer types of ID – than ID laws in, say, Georgia or Indiana. Its ID-issuing agencies can also be few and far between. According to recent court filings, some prospective voters face journeys of 200-250 miles roundtrip to get to an agency.
These features raised concerns about the burdensomeness of the law for a previous court. The coming months will tell whether they cause the current court similar concern.
Karen Shanton is a legislative studies specialist at NCSL and a public fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies.