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Friday, November 9, 2012

A 21st Century poll tax?

            Being poor gives new meaning to the phrase “time is money.”

            If you’re a wealthy parent and you have an unexpected errand, the nanny will watch the kids.  If you’re poor, it’s leave the kids home alone or don’t run the errand.  If you’re wealthy, you can take a few hours of unpaid leave and it’s no problem.  If you’re poor, it could get you fired.

            But what if the “errand” is voting?

            We all know about the long lines at some polling places on election day – and sometimes well into election night.  But the burden was not spread equally.

            According to a poll for the AFL-CIO by Hart Research Associates, only nine percent of white voters had to wait for more than 30 minutes to vote.  But 22 percent of African American voters had to wait that long.  And the figure rose to 24 percent for Hispanic voters.

            Since African American and Hispanic voters are more likely to be low income voters, the burden of waiting fell heaviest on those least likely to be able to afford it.   So if time is money, are those long lines a form of poll tax?

            The lines were only one example of voter suppression efforts aimed at the poor and minorities. The best known are Voter ID laws.  But there were others, as AFJ’s Isaiah Castilla noted on our Bolder Advocacy blog this week.  And it’s not over yet.  There are questions about whether Latino votes are being properly counted in key races in Arizona.

            It’s widely expected that, during this term, the Supreme Court will hear a challenge to a key provision of one of the most important protections for minority voters – the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  [UPDATE: 4:17PM: The Supreme Court just announced it will, in fact, hear such a challenge].  Opponents of the Act say that nearly 50 years after its passage it’s no longer needed.   But those long lines at the polls, and all the other problems, are important reminders that while all of us are created equal, at the polling station some still are more equal than others.  

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