The 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution deals with the concepts of voting and paying taxes. Simply put: a person’s right to vote cannot be denied him simply because he owes poll taxes, or taxes of any other kind. A poll tax is a type of tax that used to be required before people could vote, until it was abolished in 1966. To explore this concept, consider the following 24th Amendment definition.
Definition of 24th Amendment
- An amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibits the government from denying a person’s right to vote, simply because he owes taxes.
January 23, 1964 Amendment ratified by Congress
What is the 24th Amendment
The 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that a person cannot be denied his right to vote because he owes a poll tax, or any other type of tax. Back when the United States was the Confederate States of America, the southern states adopted poll taxes, as the Democratic Party took charge of most of the state legislatures.
The primary point of the poll tax was to prevent black Americans from voting, as they couldn’t afford the poll tax. Poorer white people would also be barred from voting, as they too could not afford to pay the poll tax. When the 24th Amendment was ratified, or officially upheld, in 1964, five states still kept their poll tax laws. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1966 that the poll tax was unconstitutional.
History of the 24th Amendment
The history of the 24th Amendment begins in unsettling and racist philosophy. The poll tax was adopted as one of several requirements for voting, put in place to try to prevent black Americans from participating in politics. These requirements were also employed as an attempt to skirt around the 15th Amendment, which specifically states that voting cannot be limited by “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” They got away with it because the requirement was put in place for all voters, though they knew that those who could not afford the poll tax, and therefore excluded from casting their votes, were mainly black Americans.
The poll tax ranged from $1 to $2. This may not seem like a lot of money now, but $1 amounted to about $23 in today’s economy. Many people were living in poverty, and couldn’t afford to part with the extra dollar or two. Some states divided their rich from their poor even further by incorporating a “grandfather clause” into their poll tax laws. This allowed anyone whose grandfather had voted in a prior election to skip paying the poll tax altogether. This was done to prevent former slaves from qualifying to vote.
Those who supported the poll tax downplayed its exclusive aspect, assuring white voters that they would not be affected. By 1902, all eleven states of the former Confederacy had laws on the books requiring a poll tax. Some states enforced testing procedures that excluded voters even further, such as literacy or comprehension tests, which the uneducated were unable to pass. At some polling stations, voters were intimidated out of voting.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt publicly spoke out in opposition to the poll tax. He called it a “remnant of the Revolutionary period,” and stated that the country had evolved past that point in the history of the 24th Amendment. However, Roosevelt backed down after the conservative Democrats won the 1938 primaries. This was because he felt he needed the votes of the Southern democrats in order to pass his New Deal-related programs, and he didn’t want to anger them any further.
It took a while for the poll tax to be abolished, with the federal government essentially ignoring the proposition from 1900 to 1937. Some state governments even repealed it. Congress worked diligently to have it abolished, even drafting a bill in 1939 to do so. However, despite the bill initially passing, it was eventually filibustered in the Senate by Southern senators, and a few of the South’s Northern allies.
The bill did not die there, however, and was re-proposed to several of the next Congresses. The closest the bill came to passing was during World War II, when opponents explained that, if the bill was abolished, overseas soldiers would be in a better position to vote. The bill still did not pass however, and came close yet again in 1946.
Little activity happened on the issue during the 1950s, and it was not really mentioned again until President John F. Kennedy urged Congress to adopt an amendment, and send it to the states for ratification. He believed that the best way for the bill to avoid a filibuster was for it to be proposed as a constitutional amendment, rather than a bill. In spite of their support for the law’s abolishment, some of Kennedy’s supporters were still against this plan of attack. They felt that the amendment process would be much slower than if the bill were introduced to legislation.
Those opponents, however, were delighted when the amendment was ratified pretty quickly, taking just over a year. This is the point in the history of the 24th Amendment in which the amendment itself was born. From that point, it spread through the states like wildfire, as the states continued to ratify the amendment. For example, the 24th Amendment was first ratified in Illinois in August 1962, and the 38th and final state to ratify it was South Dakota in January 1964 – less than two years later.
As was to be expected, the southern states were against the amendment, and some even kept the poll tax on the books even though they were prohibited from actually enforcing it.
President Lyndon B. Johnson was especially thrilled at the passage of the amendment, calling it a “triumph of liberty over restriction,” and “a verification of people’s rights.”
The 24th Amendment 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 any poll tax or other tax.”
24th Amendment Example that Abolished the Poll Tax
An example of the 24th Amendment being argued in a court of law can be found in the case of Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, wherein the poll tax was ruled to be unconstitutional. In 1964, Annie Harper, a resident of Virginia, sued the Virginia State Board of Elections after she was unable to register to vote without first paying the state’s poll tax.
The poll tax was $1.50, and the money from the tax was to pay for the school systems in that state. Harper did not have the money, so she sued on the ground that the poll tax was unconstitutional, and a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. She argued that the poll tax unconstitutionally prevented poorer citizens from voting.
Harper initially brought her suit before the U.S. District Court on October 21, 1964, but this initial case was dismissed, the court citing the 1930s precedents that had previously been established by the Supreme Court. Harper appealed the lower court’s dismissal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in a 6-3 vote, the Court reversed the lower Court’s dismissal, and ruled in Harper’s favor. Specifically, the Court noted that:
“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.”
In a nutshell, the Court held that if voters’ wealth (or lack thereof) was being considered an electoral standard, it was a blatant violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. This is because all voters were not being equally protected under the law, and voting is a fundamental right that should be afforded equally to everyone.
In this example of 24th Amendment enforcement, the Court did note, however, that the Equal Protection Clause was not “shackled to the political theory of a political era,” and therefore what was considered “equal treatment” then could realistically change over time. The Court concluded its opinion by saying:
“… the right to vote is too precious, too fundamental to be so burdened or conditioned.”
This turned out to be a landmark case because, in ruling the way that it did, the Court effectively incorporated the 24th Amendment into the states. The poll tax was therefore abolished, and the 24th Amendment, stating that people should not be held back from voting by the requirement of a previously paid poll tax – or any other tax, was put into effect.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Equal Protection Clause – A clause written as part of the 14th Amendment which holds that no state shall deny to any of its citizens “the equal protection of the laws.”
- Legislation – A law, or body of laws, enacted by a government.
- New Deal – A series of programs designed by President Roosevelt to bring about immediate economic relief.
- Primary Election – An election held wherein voters can appoint candidates for authoritative seats in office.
- Ratify – To give formal consent to a treaty, contract, or agreement, thereby officially making it valid.