As voters head to the polls to cast ballots in local, state and federal elections, questions linger. It’s been an ugly political season. Allegations of voter fraud, voter tampering, and voter suppression have been in constant circulation and might make you think that our voting system is irretrievably broken. The truth is that voting in America has never been without controversy – going all the way back to the poll tax.
A poll tax is generally considered a fee paid for the right to vote. And while the poll tax is most often associated with suppressing the African American vote during the 1960s, those in power required voters to pay poll taxes long before that time. For example, colonists paid poll taxes just before the American Revolution – part of that whole taxation without representation bit that kept Americans unhappy.
Poll taxes in the colonies, and subsequently in the states, weren’t always linked directly to voting. Instead, they were per person taxes. The word poll came from Low German meaning “head” and was extended to mean individual. By the 1690s, the phrase “poll tax” translated to “head tax” and was considered in a number of countries. The idea was that everyone should pay some tax, even those who didn’t make enough money or own enough assets to be subjected to income and property taxes. If everyone paid tax, the result was more revenue for the government.
In 1870, Congress passed the 15th Amendment which declared citizens should be allowed to vote without regard to race, color or prior history of slavery, stating:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
(By citizens, they meant men. Women didn’t win the vote in the United States until 1920.)
The amendment didn’t sit well with many in power, especially those in southern states. In an effort to suppress the vote, eleven states in the south, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, imposed a form of poll tax on its residents.
(It should be noted, however, that poll taxes weren’t restricted to the south, as my state of Pennsylvania had one in place until 1933.)
Administration of the tax varied from state to state but generally required residents to pay the tax to register to vote or provide proof of payment of the tax to vote. Failure to provide a receipt or other proof of payment meant that you could not vote. In some states, poll taxes had to be paid for a few years before you could be eligible to vote. In Alabama, the poll tax was cumulative; a law requiring men to pay all that was due from the age of twenty-one was written into the 1901 state constitution. In Georgia, the 1926 Code stipulated that a resident “shall have paid all taxes which may have been required of him” since 1877.
Residents charged that the rules were not enforced uniformly. Typically election officers had the discretion to demand that a voter produce a poll tax receipt. To make it more difficult or intimidating, laws often stipulated that poll taxes be paid only in cash and at specific locations, like the local police station.
The efforts to keep voters of color home paid off. In the state of Mississippi, fewer than 9,000 of the 147,000 voting-age African Americans were registered to vote after 1890. In Louisiana, where more than 130,000 black voters had been registered in 1896, the number plummeted to 1,342 by 1904.
While some tried to justify the poll tax, claiming that it was simply a revenue raiser, others were more plain-spoken. An editorial in the Tuscaloosa (Alabama) News boldly declared:
This newspaper believes in white supremacy, and it believes that the poll tax is one of the essentials for the preservation of white supremacy.
The question of whether the poll tax was constitutional predictably landed in court. In 1937, in Breedlove v. Suttles, 302 U.S. 277 (1937), the United States Supreme Court ruled that the state of Georgia could impose a poll tax since “It was not the purpose of the Nineteenth Amendment to limit the taxing power of the State.” Further, the court explained that states were entitled to make their own laws, writing, “The payment of poll taxes as a prerequisite to voting is a familiar and reasonable regulation long enforced in many states and for more than a century in Georgia.”
In 1951, a similar case was heard in federal court. Unlike the plaintiff in Breedlove who was a white man, the plaintiff in Butler v. Thompson, 97 F. Supp. 17 (E.D. Va. 1951), was an African-American woman who “alleged that, apart from the payment of her poll taxes” she was “in every way qualified to register under the Virginia law as a voter.” The courts again took the position that states were entitled to make their own laws, finding that “it is well settled that a law that is fair on its face and is also fairly administered is not rendered invalid by the evil motives of its draftsmen.” The plaintiff’s case was dismissed.
However, times were changing. Even as poll taxes were confirmed in the courts, they were losing popularity. By 1962, just five southern states had poll taxes on the books: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia. That same year, the House passed the 24th Amendment, outlawing the poll tax as a voting requirement in federal elections by a vote of 295 to 86. The Amendment did not become part of the Constitution, however, until 1964 when South Dakota ratified it. Today, eight states have still not ratified the amendment.
The 24th Amendment states:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.
President Lyndon B. Johnson called the amendment a “triumph of liberty over restriction.” “It is a verification of people’s rights, which are rooted so deeply in the mainstream of this nation’s history,” he said.
On August 6, 1965, President Johnson also signed the Voting Rights Act into law which authorized the U.S. Attorney General to investigate the use of poll taxes in state and local elections. By the end of the year, 250,000 new voters of color had been registered. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was never made permanent but has been reauthorized many times.
Predictably, those states which still imposed a poll tax resented the move and quickly seized upon the language which appeared to limit the application to federal elections. According to the New York Times, Mississippi Attorney General, Joe Patterson, said, “Some machinery will have to be set up to reckon with two sets of voters‐one for state elections and one for national elections.”
A test shot was fired in Virginia where the Supreme Court ruled that “The poll tax is abolished absolutely as a prerequisite to voting in federal elections, and no equivalent or milder substitute may be imposed.” The case, Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528 (1965), focused on a Virginia law put in place in response to the 24th Amendment. Virginia had eliminated their existing mandatory poll tax and substituted a provision allowing voters to choose to pay the poll tax or file a certificate of residence six months before the election. Chief Justice Warren wrote that the new law was “repugnant to the Twenty-fourth Amendment” as he echoed statements from earlier courts that “the right to vote freely for the candidate of one’s choice is of the essence of a democratic society, and any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government.”
The matter would go to court again. In 1966, the Supreme Court specifically overruled Breedlove, finding in Harper v. Virginia Bd. of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966) that “A State’s conditioning of the right to vote on the payment of a fee or tax violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” In reaching the decision, Justice Douglas noted that “Voter qualifications have no relation to wealth nor to paying or not paying this or any other tax.”
Quoting a previous opinion in Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U. S. 533, 377 U. S. 561-562, Justice Douglas opined, “A citizen, a qualified voter, is no more nor no less so because he lives in the city or on the farm… The Equal Protection Clause demands no less than substantially equal state legislative representation for all citizens, of all places as well as of all races.”
Specifically tackling the states’ argument that they should be allowed to fix voting requirements inside their own borders, Douglas disagreed, writing, “we must remember that the interest of the State, when it comes to voting, is limited to the power to fix qualifications. Wealth, like race, creed, or color, is not germane to one’s ability to participate intelligently in the electoral process. Lines drawn on the basis of wealth or property, like those of race are traditionally disfavored. To introduce wealth or payment of a fee as a measure of a voter’s qualifications is to introduce a capricious or irrelevant factor. The degree of the discrimination is irrelevant.”
He concluded, “[T]o repeat, wealth or fee paying has, in our view, no relation to voting qualifications; the right to vote is too precious, too fundamental to be so burdened or conditioned.”
Today, no state has a poll tax on the books.