GOP lawmaker appears to compare poll taxes to gun license fees

A gun show
Potential buyers try out guns which are displayed on an exhibitor's table during the Nation's Gun Show on Nov. 18, 2016 at Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Virginia. | Alex Wong, Getty Images

It was a fairly routine Michigan House committee hearing until a GOP lawmaker unexpectedly raised the idea of a poll tax, which hasn’t been legal in more than a half-century.

Dana Nessel after a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Feb. 19, 2019 | Ken Coleman

On Tuesday, Attorney General Dana Nessel was invited to appear before the House Judiciary Committee. The Democrat talked about the organization of her office and areas of focus, as well as pending civil asset forfeiture reform legislation during a 20-minute presentation.

However, at one point, the hearing took an interesting turn, as state Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain) asked Nessel about what’s commonly called a “poll tax.” That led to an exchange over constitutional law and fees for gun licenses.

“What are thoughts on the idea of the Legislature charging an administrative fee for citizens to vote?” LaFave said.

“Well, I haven’t really given it much thought,” Nessel responded. “But I would say this that it would seem to me to be unconstitutional because it’s voting tax in a matter. Right?”

1917 poll tax receipt | Wikimedia Commons

“I would certainly agree,” said LaFave. “And voting is a fundamental right enshrined under constitutions plural.

“Pursuant to Article I, Section 6 of the [Michigan] Constitution it says that “every citizen has the right to keep and bear arms in the defense of himself and the state,” LaFave continued. “Similarly, would you say that it would be unconstitutional to charge an administrative fee for citizens to exercise their Second Amendment right?”

“Well, I guess that it would depend on what your interpretation of what the Second Amendment is,” Nessel said. “There is the phrase ‘an organized militia.’”

LaFave said he was “just talking about the Michigan Constitution, Article 1, Section 6: ‘Every person has the right to keep and bear arms in the defense of himself and the state,’” and not the U.S. Constitution.

“It doesn’t talk about militia there at all. Do you think it would be similarly unconstitutional to charge them an administrative fee?” he asked the AG.

Beau LaFave

“You know what?” Nessel said. “That’s something that I have never really thought about. But you I’ll tell you what, if you’d like, I’m happy to investigate that matter for you. If you’d like an opinion on it, I’m happy to talk with my staff and we can get back to you and give a more formalized opinion.”

Poll taxes were abolished by the 24th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1964. The laws were traditionally enforced in southern states and often prevented African-Americans from voting.

Eli Savit is an attorney and an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan Law School whose areas of expertise include appellate and Supreme Court litigation. He tweeted in response to the exchange:

“Ummmmm…It’s unconstitutional to impose an ‘administrative fee for citizens to vote’ because the 24th Amendment expressly prohibits poll taxes. There’s no similar amendment for ‘weapon taxes.’

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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