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Laws requiring photo IDs to vote are 'Jim Crow' laws dressed up, says Sharpton

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 16, 2012 - The issue, said the Rev. Al Sharpton, is not voter ID – which is, and should be, required.

The issue, he told a packed auditorium today at Harris-Stowe State University, is that the current advocates for photo IDs seek to allow only a few types of government-issued photo IDs at the poll.

Such IDs can be obtained only by showing a certified copy of a birth certificate – which often costs money and, in the case of older voters, may not exist.

"Let's have the same ID as when Ronald Reagan was elected president," said Sharpton -- noting that most of the Republican presidential primaries this year haven't required the stricter photo-ID.

The push for photo IDs is geared toward November, contended Sharpton, as part of a sophisticated approach toward defeating President Barack Obama by restricting the voting rights of minorities, women, students and other Democratic-leaning groups.

Decades ago, said Sharpton, African-Americans battled “Jim Crow’’ laws aimed at keeping them from the polls.

Now, he said, “We’re fighting 'James S. Crow Jr. Esquire.' He talks in a more refined way … but the result is the same.”

Sharpton, a TV and radio commentator, kicked off a three-hour forum at Harris-Stowe that focused on the popularity of legislation around the country to mandate photo IDs at the polls. At least 200 such measures have been introduced in just the last year, several speakers said.

Lloyd Smith, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, is among the defenders of the effort.

"Photo identification is required on a daily basis for everything from using a credit card to opening a bank account to booking a hotel, and much more," said Smith. "Requiring a voter to verify their identity is a common-sense way to restore the public's trust in elections. Such a law would deter voter fraud and protect the integrity of every single legitimate vote that is cast."

Democrats cite studies discounting fraud as a problem at the polls; they believe that other motives are at work. Sharpton and other speakers said the right to vote, like other constitutional rights like the free speech and the right to bear arms, should not be equated with optional activities like going to a bank or flying on a plane.

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, observed wryly that when he was young, “the poll tax was $3.50" to discourage blacks from voting.

Now, he said, it's been replaced by a $22 fee for the birth certificate required for a government-issued photo ID.

The effect for poor people, maintained Cleaver, is the same.

In Missouri, voters will see a constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall to allow the state to require photo IDs at the polls. The ballot measure, passed by the General Assembly, was prompted by a state Supreme Court decision several years ago that ruled a state requirement unconstitutional.

The ballot issue is separate from a bill laying out how the requirement would be implemented. That bill has passed the House, but it’s unclear if such a measure will be considered this session by the state Senate. 

Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a similar implementation bill last year, saying it would particularly hurt the elderly and disabled. Senate leaders said they may want to wait until voters pass the constitutional amendment. Nixon could not block the proposed amendment from this fall’s ballot.

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, hosted the forum at Harris-Stowe and called for national and state voting-rights advocates to band together to campaign against Missouri’s proposed constitutional amendment.

In an interview, Clay called the amendment “a back-door attempt to repeal the (federal) Voting Rights Act.”

Opponents of the amendment have gone to court to try to get it tossed off the ballot. 

State Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, and head of the state House’s progressive caucus, cited polls showing that 70 percent of Missourians back the photo ID mandate. Unless the courts step in, she said, “it’s only a matter of time’’ before such a requirement is put in place in Missouri.

Sharpton asserted that it's up to opponents to fight back. For African-Americans, he said, "this is your 'water fountain' issue" -- referring to bans decades ago against blacks sharing drinking fountains with whites.

"This is a war on blacks, a war on women, a war on immigrants," Sharpton said. "The reason they are so bold is because we're not fighting back."

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.