Requiring photo IDs to vote in federal elections would be banned under legislation introduced Wednesday by Rep. Keith Ellison, who said such requirements disenfranchise minorities, the poor, women, elderly and young people.
"While photo IDs seem harmless, they are in fact the modern day poll tax," Ellison, D-Minn., said in a statement.
Ellison, who serves on the Judiciary Committee, got an important backer for the bill, as the panel's chairman, Michigan Democrat John Conyers, signed on a co-sponsor.
Ellison proposed the bill the day after the chief of the Justice Department's voting rights division, John Tanner, apologized at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing for saying that aging is not a problem with black voters because they die before they become elderly. Ellison and other Democrats grilled Tanner at that hearing.
At a National Latino Congreso in Los Angeles earlier in the month, Tanner had discussed state laws that require photo identification for voting, saying that elderly voters disproportionately don't have the proper IDs.
"That's a shame, you know, creating problems for elderly persons just is not good under any circumstance," Tanner said, according to video posted on YouTube. "Of course, that also ties into the racial aspect because our society is such that minorities don't become elderly the way white people do. They die first."
Tanner had also been criticized for clearing a Georgia law requiring voters to show government-issued photo IDs at the polls.
A subsequent photo ID law was upheld by a federal judge last month, and the U.S. Supreme Court will consider Indiana's photo ID law, which is similar to Georgia's, this term. Ellison noted that people do not need a photo ID to vote in Minnesota.
"In Minnesota we go to great lengths to make voting as inclusive as possible," he said, arguing that has helped with voter turnout. But advocates of voter ID laws argue they're needed to prevent voter fraud.
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said that requiring a voter ID helps preserve the integrity of the voting process.
"The right to vote is one of the most fundamental liberties we have as Americans," he said. "And to protect that right, we must ensure that those who vote do so legally."