The topic of discussion for this Constitution Monday comes from Section 1 of the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “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.” This provision simply states that every American has the right to vote if they are otherwise eligible to do so without any regard to the payment of taxes.
W. Cleon Skousen explained, “Many poor Americans, both black and white, were excluded from voting in certain states because they had to pay a poll tax (so much per person) before they could vote.
“Actually, the poll tax was a very small tax of one or two dollars to help pay the costs of the election. Nevertheless, it was sufficient to discourage many of the poor from voting. Many civil-rights proponents considered poll taxes to be particularly prejudicial to blacks. It was also the poorer citizens, both black and white, who tended to get behind on their taxes. This amendment allowed them to vote regardless of their tax status.” (See The Making of America – The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution, p. 758.)
David F. Forte of The Heritage Foundation explained further: “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…. Additionally, poll taxes had the effect of disenfranchising the poor in general, including whites; later, it fell upon many 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 … and they had become a notorious symbol of black disenfranchisement….
“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…. The logic of the Court’s opinion has made the Twenty-fourth Amendment virtually superfluous….” (See The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, pp. 427-428.)