Fifty years ago, on April 8, 1966, in the last of a series of moves to abolish poll taxes, a three-judge federal court at Jackson, Miss., outlawed Mississippi’s $2 poll tax as a voting requirement for state and federal elections.
Payment of a poll tax was a prerequisite to register to vote in a number of Southern states. The tax emerged in the late 19th century as part of the Jim Crow laws. After the right to vote was extended to all races by the enactment of the 15th Amendment, a number of states enacted poll tax laws as a device for restricting voting rights. The laws often included a “grandfather clause,” which allowed any adult male whose father or grandfather had voted in a specific year prior to the abolition of slavery to vote without paying the tax. These laws, along with unfairly implemented literacy tests and intimidation, achieved the desired effect of disenfranchising African-American and Native American voters, as well as many poor whites.
Proof of payment of a poll tax was a requirement to vote in Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia and Texas. A poll tax of a dollar or two was prohibitive for millions of poor and working people. Georgia created a cumulative poll tax requirement in 1877: Men of any race 21 to 60 years of age had to pay a sum of money for every year from the time they had turned 21, or from the time that the law took effect.
Poll tax requirements applied to whites as well as blacks, although generally whites had more money or were waived by the grandfather clause. After 1920 and the constitutional protection for women’s suffrage, women could also be discriminated against if they had not paid the poll tax.
Many states required payment of the tax at a time separate from the election, and then required voters to bring receipts with them to the polls. If they could not locate their receipt, they could not vote. In addition, many states surrounded registration and voting with complex record-keeping requirements which were particularly difficult for sharecropper and tenant farmers to comply with, as they moved frequently.
Although largely associated with states of the former Confederacy, poll taxes were also in place in some northern and western states. For instance, California had a poll tax until 1914, when it was abolished through a popular referendum.
The poll tax did not go unchallenged as an assault on the right of citizens to vote. In 1937, in Breedlove v. Suttles, the Supreme Court found that a prerequisite that poll taxes be paid for registration to vote was constitutional. The case involved the Georgia poll tax of $1.
The 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964, abolished the use of the poll tax or any other tax as a precondition for voting in federal elections, but made no mention of poll taxes in state elections.
In the 1966 case of Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, the Supreme Court overruled its decision in Breedlove v. Suttles, and extended the prohibition of poll taxes to state elections. It declared that the imposition of a poll tax in state elections violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
In a two-month period in the spring of 1966, federal courts declared unconstitutional poll tax laws in the last four states that still had them, starting with Texas on February 9, Alabama on March 3, and Virginia on March 25. Mississippi’s $2 poll tax (equal to $14.59 in 2013) was the last to fall, declared unconstitutional on April 8, 1966.
Over the last 50 years, racists and the right-wing have found many ingenious methods of suppressing the vote, including gerrymandering electoral districts, demanding voter IDs, limiting voting days and hours, preventing students from registering at their colleges and universities, disallowing prisoners and former convicts from voting, reducing the number of polling stations, placing polling stations far from population centers, rigging voting machines, failing to declare election day a holiday, intimidation at the polls, creating confusing ballots, arbitrarily striking people from the voter rolls and changing their party registration, disseminating false information about voting places and times, using the Supreme Court to gut the guarantees in the Voting Rights Act, failure to update immigration and citizenship laws, and other tactics.
There is still much work to be done to assure that voting in America is free, universal, and democratic.
Adapted from Wikipedia, Chase’s Calendar of Events and other sources.
Photo: Receipt for payment of poll tax, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, 1917. The $1 tax would be equal to over $18 today. | Wikipedia (CC)