Poll Tax Definition

A poll tax has had two historical meanings. The older is that of a fee that had to be paid to satisfy taxpayer requirements in voting laws. In some places, only people who could demonstrate a financial tie to a community were permitted to vote in that community. For those who did not otherwise own property or pay taxes, this sort of poll tax was sufficient to allow voting.

The other meaning for poll tax is a tax that must be paid by anyone wishing to cast a vote. Poll taxes of this sort were generally low, perhaps a dollar or two, but high enough to make voting uneconomical for poor people.

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The 24th Amendment bars both of these types of poll tax:
 
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 any poll tax or other tax.

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

One of the last legal vestiges of segregation was the effort to keep the black population from participating in the vote. With most methods for keeping the black vote to a minimum declared unconstitutional, several Southern states found an answer the poll tax. The poll tax has a long history, and was often used in Europe to raise funds. 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.

In 1939, Congress began to try to get rid of the poll tax, but history was not behind them. After all, in colonial times and when the Constitution first came into effect, land ownership was often a requirement for suffrage. Though only five states still had a poll tax by the time the amendment passed Congress, Supreme Court rulings made it doubtful that mere legislation would eliminate the tax altogether. Proposed by Congress on August 27, 1962, the 24th Amendment was ratified within a year and a half, on January 23, 1964 (514 days).

Source: U.S. Constitution Online, Notes on Amendments: 

Submitted by Kathy Niedergeses February 3, 2011

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