Ending the poll tax

Just fifty years ago today

“Imagine,” a Library of Congress website suggests that schoolchildren ask themselves, “that you are finally old enough to vote in your first election. But, do you have enough money?”1

24th.tifThe fact is, it was just fifty years ago today that the poll tax was eliminated as a voting requirement in federal elections.

It was South Dakota that put it over the top, fifty years ago today. Just 514 days after it was proposed by the Congress of the United States, the 24th amendment to the Constitution was adopted on 23 January 1964.2

The heart of the amendment is only 60 words in length. Section 1 reads, in its entirety:

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.3

Illinois was the first to pass the amendment, on 14 November 1962. Virginia didn’t do so until 25 February 1977, 13 years after it had become law. And North Carolina was the last, on 3 May 1989 — some 25 years after the fact. Mississippi specifically rejected it, on 20 December 1962, and nine states never brought it up for a vote: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Wyoming.4

The poll taxes impacted by the amendment were not the poll taxes genealogists tend to think of and use in doing our research. Those very early poll taxes were general revenue measures, authorized as far back as as the 1630s by the General Court in Massachusetts and the Virginia colonial authorities.

But the poll tax had fallen into disuse as a general revenue source by the Civil War. It was brought back as part of the “Jim Crow” laws of the post-Reconstruction south — first in Georgia in 1868 (effective in 1871), and by 1900 in every formerly-Confederate state — and was aimed at disenfranchising black voters:5

With a poll tax, in order to vote, a certain tax must be paid. The tax is the same for all, which allowed the generally more affluent white population access to the polls with a minimum of pain, while the generally poorer black population would have trouble justifying trading food on the table for a vote in the ballot box. Worse, different kinds of poll taxes were implemented, some accumulating even if no attempt was made to vote, meaning increasingly higher back-taxes to be paid to gain the vote.6

You can see the impact of the threat of such taxes in the records created just after the Civil War by the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands — the Freedmen’s Bureau. In October 1868, the officer in charge of the Fredericksburg, Virginia, office reported that “The whites are telling the blacks that they have to pay Taxes because they voted that if they had not voted they would not now be paying taxes.”7

And you can see the long-term impact of the imposition of poll taxes captured in interviews by the Federal Writers Project:

• “Do you know I’ve never voted in my life, never been able to exercise my right as a citizen because of the (poll?) tax? I’ve had to eat and sleep and I can’t pay a poll tax, can’t have a voice in my own government.”8

• “So he decided to look around them in a serious and careful manner in order to find a place that they might call their home, which would be free or rent and the monthly bills of light, water, etc, and if possible save enough money, or work for it in some way, maybe a day’s work, to pay up his Poll Tax that he had been so unfortunate enough to fall behind on and at the same time have his wife register in order to vote, as she had not done so far.”9

• “It don’t take much to keep us now we own our own propahty. Jes ‘nough to buy rations an’ pay rent for this office an’ run the repair truck. Dere is some other things like clothes an’ our poll tax – though we don’t nevah get to vote – an’ school books, but thirty dollahs a week would covah ‘em all.”10

There had been one attempt to get poll taxes set aside, in a challenge to the Georgia tax that went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1937. But the Court held that:

To make payment of poll taxes a prerequisite of voting is not to deny any privilege or immunity protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. Privilege of voting is not derived from the United States, but is conferred by the state and, save as restrained by the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments and other provisions of the Federal Constitution, the state may condition suffrage as it deems appropriate.11

Repeated legislative efforts throughout the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and into the 1960s had failed, and as of 1962 when the amendment was introduced in Congress, five states still imposed a poll tax as a condition for voting: Virginia, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi. Arkansas repealed its poll tax entirely in the wake of the amendment, but the others retained the poll tax for state elections.12

In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a poll tax was unconstitutional even in state elections: “a State violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment whenever it makes the affluence of the voter or payment of any fee an electoral standard. Voter qualifications have no relation to wealth nor to paying or not paying this or any other tax.”13 It also struck down a Virginia law creating a residency certificate alternative to the poll tax, holding that “the poll tax is abolished absolutely as a prerequisite to voting, and no equivalent or milder substitute may be imposed.”14

And so the end came to the poll tax.

Beginning with a constitutional amendment.

Just fifty years ago today.


SOURCES

Image: Joint Resolution Proposing the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, 08/27/1962 – 08/27/1962; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789 – 2011; General Records of the United States Government, 1778 – 2006, Record Group 11; National Archives, Washington, D.C.; digital image, Archives.gov (http://www.archives.gov : accessed 22 Jan 2014).

  1. The 24th Amendment Ended the Poll Tax,” America’s Story from America’s Library (http://www.americaslibrary.gov : accessed 22 Jan 2014).
  2. Ratification of Constitutional Amendments,” U.S. Constitution Online (http://www.usconstitution.net : accessed 22 Jan 2014).
  3. U.S. Constitution, amendment 24.
  4. Ratification of Constitutional Amendments,” U.S. Constitution Online (http://www.usconstitution.net : accessed 22 Jan 2014).
  5. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Twenty-fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” rev. 11 Jan 2014.
  6. Notes on the Amendments: 24th Amendment,” U.S. Constitution Online (http://www.usconstitution.net : accessed 22 Jan 2014).
  7. Capt. Hector Sears to Col. James Johnson, 31 Oct 1868; digital images, “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Letters or Correspondence, 1865-1872,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 22 Jan 2014).
  8. “Mr. Trout” to Mr. Pike, interviewer, Atlanta, Georgia, American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940, Library of Congress, American Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html : accessed 22 Jan 2014).
  9. Ibid., Mr. D.J. Lewis to Helen S. Hartley, interviewer, Mobile, Alabama.
  10. Ibid., Robert and Eliza Quinn to Luline Mabry and Frank Massimino, interviewers, Henderson, North Carolina.
  11. Breedlove v. Suttles, 302 U.S. 277, 283 (1937).
  12. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Twenty-fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” rev. 11 Jan 2014.
  13. Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663, 666 (1966).
  14. Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 542 (1965).
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10 Responses to Ending the poll tax

  1. Dave says:

    Ah, Mr. Justice Douglas, outfoxing Messrs. Justice Black and Harlan again. Moowahahaha!

  2. Dave says:

    Yeah, but I like Stewart. Anybody who can say in an opinion, “I know it when I see it,” doesn’t need to be rankled. Besides, anytime Harlan could be diddled, as it were, was a good thing.

  3. Kay Rudolph says:

    And a week ago today Pennsylvania’s voter ID law was struck down in state court, and the whole thing is likely headed back to the Supreme Court again. Skirt lengths go up and down, but some things never change.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The parallels between post-Civil War Reconstruction laws and modern “voter ID” laws are striking, aren’t they?

  4. Craig Kilby says:

    Dear Legal Genealogist. Interesting article. I think you could also add that the poll tax effectively disenfranchised a very large number of poor whites–a group probably as large if not larger than the black male population.

    The net effect was that voting was a wealthy white man’s game. The old Byrd “organization” in Virginia was testimony to that. Winning elections was simply a matter of corralling the few people who could afford to pay the poll tax. And when most of them all agreed on everything (including the spoils) it was effectively a one-party state.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It certainly did disenfranchise the poor disproportionately, but more poor whites could raise the cash than minorities.

  5. Lisa Marker says:

    I am catching up. With one notable exception (a great teacher), I wish my high school history classes had been this informative and succinct… Thank you!

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