What Is A Poll Tax? Definition and Examples

An informational placard urging voters to 'Pay Their Poll Tax Now,' Mineola, Texas, 1943.
An informational placard urging voters to 'Pay Their Poll Tax Now,' Mineola, Texas, 1943.

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A poll tax is a fixed fee levied upon eligible voters as a condition of voting, regardless of income or resources. In the United States, most discussion of the poll tax has centered on its use as a means of voter suppression originally targeting Black Americans, especially in Southern states.

Key Takeaways: What Is A Poll Tax?

  • Poll taxes were fixed fees assessed upon eligible voters as a condition of casting a ballot.
  • Originally, poll taxes were government revenue-raising measures not directly linked to restricting voting rights.
  • Beginning during Reconstruction, the poll tax in the United States was used to prevent Black Americans from voting, especially in Southern states.
  • Ratified in 1964, the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declared the poll tax unconstitutional in federal elections.
  • In 1966 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the states could not levy a poll tax as a prerequisite for voting in state and local elections.



Reasons for Poll Taxes 

While poll taxes existed in the United States long before the Civil War, they were essentially revenue-raising measures not directly linked to restricting voting rights. Poll taxes had been a major source of government funding among the colonies which formed the original 13 states of the United States. Poll taxes made up from one-third to one-half of the total tax revenue of colonial Massachusetts. The idea was that everyone should pay some tax, even those who didn’t make enough money or own enough assets to be subjected to income and property taxes. If everyone paid the tax, the result would be more revenue for the government.

Besides the former Confederate States of America, poll taxes were also imposed for financial reasons in several northern and western states, including California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Wisconsin. As land values rose due to the settlement of the American West, property taxes assumed a larger share of government revenues. Some growing western states found no further need for poll tax requirements. 

History of Poll Taxes 

Coming from an archaic term for "head" or "top of the head,” per-head poll taxes were important sources of revenue for many governments from Biblical times until the 19th century.

As described in Exodus, Jewish law imposed a poll tax of a half-shekel, payable by every man above the age of twenty. As Israel developed as a nation, its need for revenue grew accordingly. According to the Book of I Kings, King Solomon conscripted 30,000 men from across Israel to labor as loggers in Lebanon. The nation instituted a per-capital “poll tax” as well as an income tax paid in flour, meal, cattle, sheep, fowl, and other provisions. Eventually, heavy taxation led to the division of the kingdom into Israel and Judea in 880 BCE.

Under Islamic law, the Zakat al-Fitr is an obligatory tax that must be given by every Muslim near the end of every Ramadan. Muslims in dire poverty are exempt from it. The amount is 2 kg of wheat or barley or its cash equivalent. Zakat al-Fitr is to be given to the poor. In addition, the jizya is a poll tax imposed under Islamic law on non-Muslims permanently residing in a Muslim state as a requirement of their legal resident status.

In the United Kingdom, poll taxes were levied by the governments of John of Gaunt in the 14th century, King Charles II in the 17th, and Margaret Thatcher in the 20th century. Of all the poll taxes in English history, the most notorious was the one levied in 1380 by young King Richard II, the main cause of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. 

By their very nature, poll taxes are considered highly regressive taxes, are often unpopular, and have been implicated in uprisings, such as the 1381 Peasants' Revolt in England and the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion against colonial rule in South Africa.

Poll Taxes and Civil Rights 

March 1867, Harper's Weekly political cartoon by American cartoonist Thomas Nast, depicting an African-American man casting his ballot into a ballot box during the Georgetown election as Andrew Jackson and others look on angrily.
March 1867, Harper's Weekly political cartoon by American cartoonist Thomas Nast, depicting an African-American man casting his ballot into a ballot box during the Georgetown election as Andrew Jackson and others look on angrily.

Getty Images

In the United State, the origin of the poll tax—and the controversy surrounding it—is associated with the agrarian unrest of the 1880s and 1890s, which culminated in the rise of the Populist Party in the Western and the Southern states. The Populists, representing low-income farmers, gave Democrats in these areas the only serious competition that they had experienced since the end of Reconstruction. The competition led both parties to see the need to attract Black citizens back into politics and to compete for their vote. As the Democrats defeated the Populists, they amended their state constitutions or drafted new ones to include various discriminatory disfranchising devices. When the payment of the poll tax was made a prerequisite to voting, impoverished Black people and often poor White people, unable to afford the tax, were denied the right to vote. 

During the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era in the United States, the former states of the Confederacy repurposed the poll tax explicitly to prevent formerly enslaved Black Americans from voting. Although the 14th and 15th Amendments gave Black men full citizenship and voting rights, the power to determine what constituted a qualified voter was left to the states. Beginning with Mississippi in 1890, southern states quickly exploited this legal loophole. At its 1890 constitutional convention, Mississippi imposed a $2.00 poll tax and early registration as a requirement for voting. This had catastrophic results for the Black electorate. Whereas approximately 87,000 Black citizens registered to vote in 1869, representing almost 97% of the eligible voting-age population, fewer than 9,000 of them registered to vote after the state’s new constitution took effect in 1892. 

Between 1890 and 1902, all eleven former Confederate states imposed some form of a poll tax to deter Black Americans from voting. The tax, which ranged from $1 to $2, was prohibitively expensive for most Black sharecroppers, who earned their wages in crops, not currency. Beyond the cost, voter registration and tax payment offices were usually located in public spaces designed to intimidate potential voters, like courthouses and police stations.

The southern states also enacted Jim Crow laws intended to reinforce racial segregation and restrict Black voting rights. Along with the poll tax, most of these states also imposed literacy tests, which required potential voters to read and interpret in writing sections of the state constitution. So-called “grandfather clauses” allowed a person to vote without paying the poll tax or passing the literacy test if their father or grandfather had voted before the abolition of slavery in 1865; a stipulation that automatically precluded all formerly enslaved persons. Together, the grandfather clause and the literacy tests effectively restored voting rights to poorer White voters who could not pay the poll tax, while further suppressing the Black vote.

Poll taxes of varying stipulations lingered in Southern states well into the 20th century. While some states abolished the tax in the years after World War I, others retained it. Ratified in 1964, the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declared the tax unconstitutional in federal elections. 

Specifically, 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.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson called the amendment a “triumph of liberty over restriction.” “It is a verification of people's rights, which are rooted so deeply in the mainstream of this nation's history,” he said.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 created significant changes in the voting status of Black Americans throughout the South. The law prohibited the states from using literacy tests and other methods of excluding Black Americans from voting. Before this, only an estimated twenty-three percent of voting-age Black citizens were registered nationally, but by 1969 the number had jumped to sixty-one percent.

African American voters, able to vote for the first time in rural Wilcox County, Alabama, line up in front of a polling station after the passage of the federal voting rights law in 1965.
African American voters, able to vote for the first time in rural Wilcox County, Alabama, line up in front of a polling station after the passage of the federal voting rights law in 1965.

Bettmann / Getty Images

In 1966 the U.S. Supreme Court went beyond the Twenty-fourth Amendment by ruling in the case of Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections that under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, states could not levy a poll tax as a prerequisite for voting in state and local elections. In two months in the spring of 1966, federal courts declared poll tax laws unconstitutional in the last four states that still had them, starting with Texas on February 9. Similar decisions soon followed in Alabama and Virginia. Mississippi's $2.00 poll tax (about $18 today) was the last to fall, declared unconstitutional on April 8, 1966.

Sources

  • Ogden, Frederic D. “The Poll Tax in the South.” University of Alabama Press, 1958, ASIN:‎ B003BK7ISI
  • “Historical Barriers to Voting.” University of Texas at Austin, https://web.archive.org/web/20080402060131/http://texaspolitics.laits.utexas.edu/html/vce/0503.html.
  • Greenblatt, Alan. "The Racial History Of The 'Grandfather Clause.'" Code Switch, NPR, October 22, 2013, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/10/21/239081586/the-racial-history-of-the-grandfather-clause.
  • "Poll Tax Dropped as S. C. Voting Requirement.” The Index-Journal, Greenwood, South Carolina, Associated Press, February 13, 1951, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/65208417/the-index-journal/.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is A Poll Tax? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Jul. 27, 2022, thoughtco.com/poll-tax-definition-and-examples-5443130. Longley, Robert. (2022, July 27). What Is A Poll Tax? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/poll-tax-definition-and-examples-5443130 Longley, Robert. "What Is A Poll Tax? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/poll-tax-definition-and-examples-5443130 (accessed December 1, 2022).