[Abolishing the Poll Tax]
January 23 marks the 54th anniversary of ratification of the constitutional amendment abolishing the poll tax. The 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964, ended the practice in multiple states of charging or taxing citizens for voting. Poll taxes were deliberate undemocratic voting barriers for millions of citizens, mostly black and poor.
The campaign leading up to the 24th Amendment and the Amendment itself provide important lessons to those who desire fundamental democratic change – voting related or otherwise. While the 24th Amendment culminated a victorious decades-long effort to end one form of voter suppression, it was, nevertheless, a tragically missed opportunity to achieve a more far-reaching amendment guaranteeing the inalienable right to the vote for all citizens that’s nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constitution. We are reminded of this undemocratic constitutional black hole prior to each federal election cycle, including the present moment leading up to this November’s elections, when the creative voter suppression juices of some lawmakers overflow all over legislative bodies in the form of proposed laws that increase the difficulty to vote for certain constituencies. What poll taxes were of yesteryear are any number of existing or proposed voting hurdles today requiring what for many are or would be a poll vault height of conditions to actually cast a vote.
The lessons of the 24th Amendment, however, extend beyond voting rights advocates. They also include anyone working to solve structural democratic impediments tempted by the relatively easier route of legislation or incremental constitutional changes.
In 1964, the 24th Amendment to the United States Constitution eliminated the poll tax from all federal elections. Although it was proposed by Congress and ratified by the states at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, was not the product of protests and demonstrations. Unlike the 19th Amendment, which secured the vote for women, the 24th was essentially a congressional effort. Moreover, because the 24th Amendment has had almost no impact on voting rights, it is not much more than a footnote to the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, it is so insignificant that it is not mentioned anywhere on the NAACP, SNCC, CORE, or Southern Christian Leadership Conference websites.
To understand how the 24th Amendment came into being, it helps to have at least a cursory familiarity with a history of voting rights in the South after the Civil War. The 15th Amendment, adopted in 1870 during Reconstruction, provided that the right to vote could no longer “be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”1 In the aftermath of the 15th Amendment, African Americans began to vote in and win local elections in formerly Confederate states. By the 1880's African Americans, along with poor white cotton farmers and Southern Republicans, joined together to form the Populist or People's Party, which called for the regulation of bankers, landowners, and other elites who were perceived of as being hostile to the needs of the small farmer. The Populists also famously demanded the abolition of the gold standard. The popularity of the Populist Party nearly broke the political hold of the Democratic Party in the South until it united with the Democrats to support William Jennings Bryan in his “cross of gold” bid for the presidency in 1896. Bryan lost and the fusion of the Populists with the Democrats caused the Populist/Republican alliance to fall apart, making it possible for the white supremacist Democrats to return to power. By 1899, Southern legislatures had begun passing a series of laws designed to disenfranchise African Americans as much as possible without overtly violating the 15th Amendment. The poll tax was just one of these disenfranchising laws.
By 1908, all eleven formerly Confederate Southern states had enacted a poll tax. Most also enacted literacy or comprehension tests along with grandfather clauses that exempted from the new requirements men whose fathers or grandfathers had voted before 1865.2 In addition, the Democratic Party adopted a policy of white-only participation in primaries. These actions, along with the violence, intimidation, and economic reprisals that African American voters faced when attempting to register or vote, succeeded in eliminating African American participation in elections and government. Since the courts interpreted the 15th Amendment narrowly, these obstacles to the ballot box were deemed to be legal. In 1937, any lingering question of the legality of the poll tax was eliminated by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Breedlove v. Suttles, 302 U.S. 277 (1937). The Court concluded in Breedlove that a state law requiring a poll tax in order to register to vote was constitutional because "[the] privilege of voting is not derived from the United States, but is conferred by the state and, save as restrained by the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments and other provisions of the Federal Constitution, the state may condition suffrage as it deems appropriate."3
At the height of its use, the poll tax proved to be very effective at controlling access to the polls. Voters had to pay $1.00 to $2.00 per year many months before the election, ranging from February 1 (in Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas), when farm workers were unlikely to have available cash, to 30 days before election (South Carolina).4 The taxpayer also had to pay retroactively for the past two unpaid years, three unpaid years, or every past unpaid year, depending on the state.5 The 1900 tax, in today's dollars, ranged from about $28 to $56 for each year retroactively due. After paying the tax, the voter was given a receipt, which he had to save and remember to produce in November to prove that he had paid. Over half the potential voters failed to pay. Many had insufficient funds. Many others were unaware of the payment deadline.
The Democratic Party political machine, on the other hand, was well aware of the deadline and the costs and was permitted to pay the taxes and collect the receipts in blocks of thousands of nonpayers. In some towns, the tax collectors were known to sell the receipts to the highest bidder. The poll-tax receipts were then handed out as the party saw fit on election day.6 So, besides dramatically reducing the number of eligible voters, the poll tax also thoroughly corrupted the democratic process.
Soon after the 1937 Breedlove decision, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke out against the poll tax and tried to get anti-poll-tax legislation passed. However, the liberal Southern Democratic challengers supported by President Roosevelt lost in the 1938 primaries, and the President abandoned the poll-tax issue in order to get conservative Southerners to support his New Deal programs, which he viewed as a more pressing issue at the height of the Great Depression. Even without President Roosevelt's overt backing, a bill to abolish the poll tax in federal elections passed in the House, though it failed to survive the threat of a Senate filibuster. The same bill was introduced every subsequent year, and every year it was tied up in the Senate by the Southern block.
Ironically, it was a Southerner who eventually became the central figure championing the elimination of the poll tax by way of a constitutional amendment. No friend to minorities, Florida Senator Spessard Holland was a conservative Southern Democrat who condemned the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 346 U.S. 483 (1954), in which the Supreme Court found that separate was not equal. Senator Holland disliked the poll tax, not because it disenfranchised African American citizens, but because he abhorred the corruption that resulted from the purchase of poll tax receipts. He had been part of the state legislative effort that had led to abolition of the Florida poll tax in 1937. After watching the defeat of congressional anti-poll-tax legislation year after year, Holland came to believe that legislation was a losing strategy for abolishing the poll tax. He argued against the federal legislation in 1948, on the theory that the proposed legislation was unconstitutional. But the very next year, 1949, Holland sponsored a constitutional amendment banning the poll tax. Like the prior bills for a legislative solution, the resolution for a constitutional amendment failed to be reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Undaunted, Senator Holland proceeded to reoffer it in every succeeding congress for the next 13 years.
The first year, Holland had only a handful of cosponsors. By 1960, the Senate, by a 72-to-16 roll-call vote, added the poll-tax amendment to a resolution proposing two other constitutional amendments. Ultimately, the poll-tax amendment was dropped by the House Judiciary Committee to assure congressional approval of the 23rd Amendment, which gave the citizens of Washington, D.C., the right to vote in Presidential elections.7
In 1962, the poll-tax amendment had the backing of President John F. Kennedy, who lobbied for its passage in the Senate and reached out to Senator Holland for support. In March of 1962, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield announced that if the Senate agreed take up for immediate consideration to his motion to make a former home of Alexander Hamilton in New York City a national monument, then Senator Holland make a motion that the Senate substitute a constitutional amendment to bar the poll tax and Mansfield would accept that substitution.”8 After days of debate, a 62 to 15 roll-call vote approved Mansfield's motion. The Senate voted to take up the Alexander Hamilton monument resolution, at which time Senator Holland offered his constitutional amendment as a substitute.9
On March 27, 1962, the roll-call vote for approval of the proposed amendment was 77 to 16, 15 more than the necessary two-thirds. Eight Southern senators -- from Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia -- voted for the proposed amendment. On August 27, 1962, the House voted 294 to 86 in favor, and on September 14, 1962, the proposed amendment was submitted to the states.
Congress imposed a seven-year time limit for state ratification, but that requirement was easily met. On November 14, 1962, Illinois became the first state to ratify. Ratification was completed when South Dakota became the 38th state to ratify just three months later, on January 23, 1964. The 24th Amendment to the Constitution, banning the imposition of poll taxes in federal elections, was now the law of the land.
The new amendment, however, had minimal impact. By the time it was adopted, only five Southern states still levied a poll tax, and the poll tax was already being eliminated in two of those. More significantly, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most important achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, provided sweeping protections of voting rights, especially in the states with histories of voting suppression.
The 24th Amendment was not the product of a mass movement. The Civil Rights movement during that time focused on passage for legislation to end anti-discriminatory practices. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act were among its major achievements.
Sweeping as they were in eliminating racial injustices, these and other laws were just that – laws that were only as permanent as the majority support for them in Congress or the Supreme Court. Constitutional Amendments more deeply institutionalize and insulate principles and policies from the whims of Mayors, Governors, Congresses, and Presidents and to a great extent, even Supreme Courts. The evisceration of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder, 557 US 193 (2009) is a case in point. Passage of onerous voter-identification requirements in Republican states soon followed the decision that has suppressed hundreds of thousands of votes. Racist assaults on voting rights of people of color as well as toward poor whites are often veiled under bogus “voter fraud” charges – requiring each and every proposed voter suppression bill to be resisted -- including many right now.
This one-at-a-time resistance splinters, weakens and diverts, draining time, energy and resources that could be focused on organizing to create or expand other democratic arenas. The 24th Amendment was obviously in of itself no answer since it only addressed a single dimension of voting repression – one that by that time had already largely disappeared. Where would the movement for voting rights be today if activist energy directed as passing the Voting Rights Act had been invested in enlarging the incremental congressional effort to abolish the poll tax – specifically to call for the elimination of all barriers to voting by declaring voting to be a constitutional right? Was the once-in-a-generation moment to translate the cultural shift in attitudes combined with a massive interracial movement for racial justice fully realized and concretized?
The same lessons hold true for those striving for other forms of democratic change today – including the effort to end corporate constitutional rights and money as constitutionally-protected free speech (thus justifying huge political campaign contributions), both of which have contributed to massive corruption of our elections, politics and politicians and hijacking of We the People’s right to self-governance.
Legislative energies to address the anti-democratic perils of money in politics end up largely in a sinkhole given constitutional First Amendment “free speech” protection of money in elections. Similar efforts to reign in corporate abuses via mere laws or regulations – a well as symbolic protests, or pleading for corporate agents to sign voluntary “codes of conduct” -- are equally ineffective in asserting people power when corporations possess any number of constitutional “rights,” including many in the Bill of Rights that were reserved exclusively for human beings. It’s uniquely the constitutional arena where reversing or abolishing undemocratic constitutional decisions can occur.
While legislation is ineffective at defining the role of big money in elections and corporations in our society, economy and politics, incremental constitutional change is as well. Just as abolishing the poll tax singularly ended one form of voting suppression, reversing the Citizens United alone or even abolishing the doctrine that money equals speech doesn’t address the totality of the problem. Needed is a constitutional amendment to end the plethora of never-intended corporate constitutional rights and money defined as free speech in one swoop, as reflected in Move to Amend’s We the People Amendment, which would legalize, institutionalize and constitutionalize democracy. And the need for it is now while the awareness of our democratic decline, “cleaning up the swamp,” and range of corporate abusive actions against the public will is at a unique peak. It would be tragic to squander this moment to sell ourselves short by only focusing on a legislative agenda or only proposing incremental constitutional changes when the problems are so severe and a solution, the We the People Amendment, is so at hand.