The U.S. Constitution's Twenty-Fourth Amendment: Banning Poll Taxes

Even with the Fifteenth Amendment giving equal voting rights to all people, regardless of race, there was still a need for the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, which banned poll taxes.

After the end of Reconstruction in the South in 1877, barriers were erected to reduce the number of blacks registering as voters. The two most common ways of discouraging voting were literacy tests and taxation, especially the poll tax. No fewer than 11 southern states introduced a poll tax requirement for voting. This was a simple tax of a fixed sum to be paid by everybody, regardless of race, color, earnings, or wealth.

In what way was the poll tax disadvantageous to blacks? Proof that you had paid your poll tax was often made a condition of voting in an election. But some southern states had a “grandfather clause” that allowed you to vote regardless of whether you’d paid your poll tax or not — provided your grandfather had voted at a named date before the abolition of slavery. This type of clause placed blacks and poor whites at a disadvantage as compared with property-owning white men.

The amount of the poll tax was usually quite low. In Georgia it was limited by law to $1 per person per year. In Breedlove v. Suttles, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1937, a 28-year-old white man was denied the right to vote because he hadn’t paid his poll tax, which was a condition of voting under Georgia law. He claimed that the tax infringed on his rights under the Fourteenth and Nineteenth amendments.

The court dismissed his application. Justice Pierce Butler, writing for the court, pointed out that voting rights are determined not by federal but by state law, and that, within the bounds of the Constitution, “the state may condition suffrage as it deems appropriate.” He went on to rule that “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.”

Although Breedlove was white, objections to the poll tax came mainly from blacks. So, in 1962 Congress proposed the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to make it unlawful to make the right to vote conditional on the payment of the poll tax or any other tax. The amendment was finally ratified on January 23, 1964, but several southern states never ratified it.

The main part of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment reads as follows:

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.

The wording of the amendment makes sure it covers all bases — but only in respect to federal elections. It doesn’t cover state elections at all.

So it was left to the U.S. Supreme Court to ban the use of poll taxes as a condition for voting in state elections. It did so in the 1966 case Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections. Justice William O. Douglas, writing for the majority, ruled as follows:

We conclude that 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.

Hugo Black, one of the three dissenting justices, stressed that the majority decision “is to no extent based on a finding that the Virginia law as written or as applied is being used as a device or mechanism to deny Negro citizens of Virginia the right to vote on account of their color.”

Justice Black then rounded on the majority for departing without good reason from the unanimous decision in Breedlove and for amending the Constitution, which the court is not allowed to do under Article V.

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