January 23, 2014

Anti-poll tax amendment is 50 years old today


The value in today’s dollars of the annual poll tax once imposed by several Southern states.

Fifty years ago today, the 24th Amendment, prohibiting the use of poll taxes as voting qualifications in federal elections, became part of the U.S. Constitution. Poll taxes were among the devices used by Southern states to restrict African Americans (as well as poor whites, Native Americans and other marginalized populations) from voting. The taxes had been ubiquitous across the old Confederacy earlier in the 20th century, but by 1964 only five states — Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia — retained them.

The nominal amount of the taxes wasn’t very much, then or now. Alabama, Texas and Virginia set theirs at $1.50 per year, or $11.27 in today’s dollars; Arkansas had the lowest tax, $1 (or $7.51 today), while Mississippi’s was highest at $2 ($15.03 today). But the taxes were more onerous than they might appear. In Virginia, Alabama and Mississippi the taxes were cumulative, meaning a person seeking to vote had to pay the taxes for two or three years before they were eligible to register. Often only property owners were billed for the taxes, and the due dates were several months before the election. Virginia, Mississippi and Texas allowed cities and counties to impose local poll taxes on top of the state charge. And in some jurisdictions taxes had to be paid in person at the sheriff’s office, an intimidating prospect for many.

Also, as voting historian J. Morgan Kousser noted, the taxes had to be paid in cash, at a time when many black southerners had extremely low cash incomes: “[B]ecause sharecroppers, small farmers, factory workers, miners, and others bought most of their necessities on credit, they might not see more than a few dollars in cash during a year. To such men, who composed majorities or near-majorities of the adult male populations of every southern state at the turn of the century, a levy of a dollar or two might seem enormous and a cumulated poll tax, impossibly high.”

The 24th Amendment didn’t, however, mark the end of poll taxes in the United States. While it ended taxes as factors in federal elections, poll taxes remained in place for state and local elections. Arkansas effectively repealed its state poll tax in November 1964; it wasn’t till 1966 that the taxes in the four remaining states were struck down in a series of federal court decisions.

Category: Daily Number

Topics: Voting Issues, Race and Ethnicity, Elections and Campaigns

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. retiredtaxpayer3 years ago

    Interesting. I think what goes wrong for Americans is that Lobbyists have been getting legislation through by supporting a Congressman, or representative and getting an upper hand on “influencing an elected official which is what they’re paid to do. We taxpayers cannot stop them unless we pay their way to their elections. Legislators that lose or even Presidents will sell their power over legislators. They will write books and become very wealthy, then will be paid by a major corporation to peddle their influence. The taxpayer pays the freight in the end. When a major company “donates” money to an election campaign, some of it is tax deductible. The rest they cue up to “Advertising”. For them it’s a win-win deal. Screw the “golden goose” guys and maybe your lifetime will be wealthy, but your children will pay the price of freedom and an adverse Constitution. Solution: Cut the time period one can campaign. Hold the Campaigner responsible for doing what he says he’ll do. All Taxpayers donate enough to pay for their campaigns. The Campaigners will then have to do the bidding of the taxpayer, not some dude out to make a quick buck for themselves and call themselves Patriots! NOT!!!!!

  2. Richard DeSilver4 years ago

    It’s interesting how a number of states (mostly in the South and with Republican legislatures) have recently managed to get around the 24th amendment by enacting other measures to discourage these same groups from voting. Oddly enough, these groups usually vote for democratic candidates.