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Twenty-Fourth Amendment: About

Amendment XXIV: 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.

Why is the Twenty-Fourth Amendment Important?

The Framers struck a bargain regarding the right to vote when they drafted the Constitution. The Constitution would not dictate the qualifications of voters—that matter would be left to the states. But the right to vote for members of the House of Representatives would be guaranteed to those eligible to vote for members of a state’s lower legislative chamber. In this way, the matter of voter qualifications was principally left to state discretion.

At the time the Constitution was ratified, many states limited the right to vote to property owners. States wanted a sufficiently interested electorate, and they believed that property owners were not only the most interested, but also had the most at stake in the outcome of an election.

Some states moved away from property ownership as a voting qualification and instead required that voters pay a tax, often known as a “poll tax.” Poll taxes initially expanded the right to vote, because far more citizens could pay a tax than establish sufficient property ownership. Also, taxpayers could be considered part of an interested electorate, as the government directed where and how their tax dollars would be used and what taxes would be levied.

By the mid-nineteenth century, most states had abandoned property requirements or poll taxes as limitations on the franchise and extended the right to vote to all free white men. With the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the federal government legally extended the franchise to all men regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

After nearly disappearing in the states, a repurposed poll tax returned as part of a successful effort to undermine the Fifteenth Amendment and reestablish limits on the franchise. Beginning in Florida in 1889, all the former Confederate States, and a few others, instituted a suite of changes to voting laws as a part of this effort. They introduced literacy tests and disqualified convicted felons from voting. They also resurrected poll taxes. The historical record is filled with racially derogatory statements from delegates at State constitutional conventions who believed poll taxes and other devices would suppress Black voter registration and turnout.

Their efforts succeeded. Together, these changes resulted in significant declines in voter turnout and registration, particularly among eligible Black voters. But poll taxes would burden many poor white voters, too, creating a fairly significant economically disparate impact. Even though the poll taxes were usually nominal, often just $1 or $2, that was a fairly measurable sum for poorer voters of that era—the equivalent of $20 to $40 today. 

Poll taxes were even more burdensome due to their administration. Many states made poll taxes cumulative: voters needed to pay the tax for this election and every previous year they had failed to pay taxes. A $1 tax could quickly balloon to more than $40 in overdue taxes. Some jurisdictions required payment many months before the election. And others required voters to offer a receipt on Election Day as proof of payment, an additional hurdle.

The Supreme Court repeatedly affirmed the constitutionality of poll taxes. In its 1937 opinion in Breedlove v. Suttles, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected a claim from a white Georgia voter that the poll tax violated the Equal Protection Clause. In 1951, it rejected a similar claim challenging Virginia’s poll tax in Butler v. Thompson.

By 1962, most states had abandoned poll taxes, but they remained in effect in five: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia. Even there, the states had eased the rules somewhat, such as limiting the cumulative effect of poll taxes. But that year, as the Civil Rights Movement gained traction, President John F. Kennedy endorsed eliminating both poll taxes and literacy tests in his State of the Union address. Continue reading from Constitution Center

Link to Poll power : the Voter Education Project and the movement for the ballot in the American South by Evan Faulkenbury in the catalog
Link to Our Time is Now by Stacey Abrams in the catalog
Link to One person, no vote : how voter suppression is destroying our democracy by Carol Anderson in the catalog
Link to The voting rights war : the NAACP and the ongoing struggle for justice by Gloria Browne-Marshall in the catalog
Link to 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting by EJ Dionne Jr in the catalog

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