Poll Taxes

The Heritage Guide to the Constitution

Poll Taxes

Amendment XXIV

Section 1. 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 poll tax or other tax.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Southern states enacted poll taxes of one or two dollars per year between 1889 and 1966 as a prerequisite to voting. A citizen paid the tax when registering and then annually thereafter; some laws required payment up to nine months before an election. Furthermore, many states had a cumulative feature that required an individual to pay all previous years’ poll taxes before he could vote in the instant year.

Prior to the enactment of poll taxes, property ownership was frequently a prerequisite to voting. States instituted the poll tax early in the nineteenth century as a device to grant voting rights to individuals who did not own real property. Although most states had dispensed with both property qualifications and the poll tax by the time of the Civil War, the tax resurfaced in the South to dilute the effect of race-neutral voting provisions required in Southern states’ constitutions as a condition for readmission to the Union following the Civil War.

Beginning in 1889, Southern states reintroduced the poll tax as a method of disenfranchising black voters. As delegate Carter Glass declared during the Virginia constitutional convention of 1902, the tax was designed “with a view to the elimination of every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.” Additionally, poll taxes had the effect of disenfranchising the poor in general, including whites; later, it fell upon some women after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Legislation to eliminate poll taxes in federal elections was introduced in every Congress beginning in 1939, but no bill made it into law. By the time of the Twenty-fourth Amendment’s ratification in 1964, only five states retained a poll tax. Nevertheless, Congress deemed the amendment necessary inasmuch as poll taxes had previously survived constitutional challenges in the courts, Breedlove v. Suttles (1937), and they had become a notorious symbol of black disenfranchisement.

During the debates, some members of Congress argued that because poll taxes were racially discriminatory, Congress should outlaw them directly under the enforcement powers of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. However, Congress eventually decided against using its Fifteenth Amendment enforcement power because it did not directly reach the disenfranchisement of the poor. Early drafts of the Fifteenth Amendment had, in fact, sought to proscribe devices like poll taxes. Ultimately, however, the Fifteenth Amendment’s drafters had settled on language forbidding only racial discrimination in the enjoyment of the franchise. A specific poll tax amendment would be both more sweeping and have greater symbolic status. In addition, the amendment’s supporters attacked the poll tax as a vehicle for fraud because the tax facilitated political corruption through vote buying by political machines that had made block payments of the tax. Some states allowed third parties to pay an individual’s poll tax, so some businesses interested in the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment were able to pay the poll tax for their patrons. Similarly, unions, frustrated with the resistance to unionization in the South, encouraged registration of their members in some cases by paying their poll taxes. Defenders of states’ rights, however, fended off any attempt to extend the amendment’s application to local elections. Nonetheless, not long after the ratification of the amendment, Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made problematic the continuing validity of the poll tax as a qualification in state elections.

In Harman v. Forssenius (1965), the Supreme Court for the first time construed the Twenty-fourth Amendment, giving broad effect to its prohibition. In anticipation of the amendment’s adoption, Virginia had enacted a statute amending its election laws to provide that a qualified citizen might vote in federal elections only if, at least six months prior to each election, he had either paid a poll tax or filed a certificate of residence. In declaring the new Virginia voting law unconstitutional, the Court stressed the broad language of the Twenty-fourth Amendment, which prohibits not only the denial but also the abridgement of the right to vote. The Court noted that the Twenty-fourth Amendment, like the Fifteenth, “nullifies sophisticated as well as simple-minded modes of impairing the right guaranteed.” Continuing, the Court also found that the Twenty-fourth Amendment applies to “onerous procedural requirements” that effectively handicap, impede, or impair the “exercise of the franchise by those claiming the constitutional immunity.”

The drafters of the amendment carefully limited its scope to federal elections. Two years after its ratification, the Supreme Court announced that the use of poll taxes as a prerequisite to voting in state elections violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, even though it was evident that the conclusion was at odds with the original understanding of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment, a position emphasized in the dissents of Justices Hugo L. Black and John M. Harlan. Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections (1966). In Harper, the Court dealt with a Virginia statute requiring the payment of a poll tax not to exceed $1.50 as a precondition for voting, an amount that Virginia argued was minimal and thus not a significant burden on the right to vote. Admitting “the right to vote in state elections is nowhere expressly mentioned,” the Court nevertheless invalidated the statute because “it is enough to say that once the franchise is granted to the electorate, lines may not be drawn which are inconsistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Justice William O. Douglas, writing for the Court, explained: “[A] state violates the Equal Protection Clause . . . 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.” The logic of the Court’s opinion has made the Twenty-fourth Amendment superfluous, as Justice John M. Harlan observed in his dissent in Harper.

Recent attempts to extend the Twenty-fourth Amendment to other contexts have failed. Federal courts have turned aside arguments that the amendment forbids re-enfranchisement of felons contingent upon payment of child support, Johnson v. Bredesen (2010), or payment of past due fines, Harvey v. Brewer (2012), or even a fee to cover the process for reinstatement of voting rights, Howard v. Gilmore (2000). Neither does voter identification laws constitute a poll tax, Gonzalez v. Arizona (2010). Voting disenfranchisement claims receive a better hearing from the courts under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

David F. Forte

Professor, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law

Bruce Ackerman & Jennifer Nou, Canonizing the civil Rights Revolution: The People and the Poll Tax, 103 Nw. U. L. Rev. 63 (2009)

Steven F. Lawson, Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944–1969 (1976)

Frederic D. Ogden, The Poll Tax in the South (1958)

Ronnie L. Podolefsky, The Illusion of Suffrage: Female Voting Rights and the Women's Poll Tax Repeal Movement after the Nineteenth Amendment, 7 Colum. J. Gender & L. 185 (1998)

Breedlove v. Suttles, 302 U.S. 277 (1937)

Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528 (1965)

Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966)

Howard v. Gilmore, 2000 U.S. App. LEXIS 2680 (4th Cir., February 23, 2000) Johnson v. Bredesen, 624 F.3d 742 (6th Cir. 2010)

Gonzalez v. Arizona, 624 F.3d 1162 (9th Cir. 2010)

Harvey v. Brewer, 605 F.3d 1067 (9th Cir. 2010)