“Constitutional Amendments” Series – Amendment XXIV – “Elimination of Poll Taxes”

Political cartoon by Theodor Geisel – better known by his penname “Dr. Seuss” – criticizing poll taxes in American elections, 1942. (Public Domain)

Amendment Twenty-four to the Constitution was ratified on January 23, 1964. It abolished and forbids the federal and state governments from imposing taxes on voters during federal elections. The official text is written as such:

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.

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

In the late 19th century – in the aftermath of the American Civil War and the subsequent Reconstruction Era – states across the former Confederacy imposed a series of laws that restricted the civil liberties of the newly-freed African American population. Although the Fifteenth Amendment granted the right to vote to all American men, African Americans in the South were met with several types of laws that restricted voting due to technicalities that ranged from arbitrary, to openly discriminatory. One of the many discriminatory methods was the poll tax, which required voters to pay a fee in order to enter the polling places to cast their ballots. Due to the disproportionate levels of poverty among African Americans in the Southern states, many of them – as well as poor Whites – were excluded from voting. The poll taxes and the other methods of restricting the vote were all made with discriminatory intent, but they were crafted in such a way to avoid federal scrutiny. The 1937 Supreme Court case of Breedlove v. Suttles held that the poll taxes were constitutional.

A more prominent wave of criticism towards the poll tax grew during the Roosevelt Administration of the 1930s and 1940s. President Harry S. Truman continued with these criticisms in his President’s Committee on Civil Rights, investigating the poll tax and other forms of voter restriction across the country. Anti-Communist sentiments that had emerged during the Second Red Scare of the 1950s shifted poll taxes to a lower political priority, where the issue would not be revisited until the administration of John F. Kennedy. An amendment to repeal all poll taxes was introduced by Congress in August 1962. In spite of concerns that all the Southern states would reject the amendment, the required thirty-eight states ratified it in January 1964. Among the states that approved the new amendment, Georgia unanimously voted in favor of it, while the only Southern state to directly reject it was Mississippi. In the immediate aftermath of the Twenty-fourth Amendment’s ratification, several states still maintained their poll taxes in opposition to the new law. These poll taxes were completely eliminated after the 1966 Supreme Court decision Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, which ruled that poll taxes in all elections – federal, state, and local – were unconstitutional. The Twenty-fourth Amendment was one additional step in the pursuit of civil rights in the turbulent 1960s. Coincidentally, the new amendment was passed the same year as the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed all forms of discrimination across the United States, effectively ending the Segregation-era. Just one year after the new amendment’s ratification, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated all forms of discrimination in voting for all American men and women, making voting a Constitutional right with no reservations for the first time in American history. The Twenty-fourth Amendment was instrumental in advancing the pursuit of voting rights, not just for the political movements that preceded it, but also as a foundation for those that would follow.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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