On this day in history, the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, eliminating the poll tax in federal elections, was ratified. Many Southern states adopted a poll tax in the late 1800s as part of “Jim Crow laws” to counter the effects of the 15th Amendment, which gave former slaves the right to vote. These laws were often supplemented by literacy tests and intimidation.
The U.S. Supreme Court had declared the poll tax constitutional in Breedlove v. Suttles (302 U.S. 277, 1937), ruling:
Voting is a privilege derived not from the United States, but from the State, which may impose such conditions as it deems appropriate, subject only to the limitations of the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments and other provisions of the Federal Constitution.”
However, while the 24th Amendment abolished the use of the poll tax (or any other tax) as a pre-condition for voting in federal elections, it made no mention of poll taxes in state elections.
In the 1966 case of Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections (383 U.S. 663, 1966), the Supreme Court overruled its decision in Breedlove v. Suttles, and extended the prohibition of poll taxes to state elections, declaring:
A State’s conditioning of the right to vote on the payment of a fee or tax violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Breedlove v. Suttle, supra, pro tanto overruled.”
But those who would restrict the voting rights of minorities don’t give up easily….
You can learn more about efforts to restrict the vote (especially in ways that affect minority voters) on the Brennan Center website, here.