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 poll tax or other tax. - The Twenty-Fourth Amendment
There’s a common misperception that many Americans hold about “voting” rights and its this: that the Constitution guaranteed or guarantees a litany of “voting” rights.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The Constitution wasn’t written to list out rights to the citizenry but to list out enumerated powers to the government and most of the powers related to voting and elections were left to the states to handle.
In short, the Constitution says this: "The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators."
In other words, the states and their legislatures are given discretion over the qualification of voters while Congress is allowed to step in and make changes here or there as long as those changes have to do with “the times, places and manner of holding elections”.
Early on, most states required that, in order to be eligible to vote, the citizen must be male and land owning. One impetus behind this requirement was that the founders wanted an electorate that was interested in the actions and movement of government and believed that members of society who owned property would be sufficiently involved and informed. Further, owning property meant that the individual voting also had a stake in how the elections turned out.
Overtime, states began to remove the property requirement and replace it with a poll tax. Presumably paying a tax meant that the electorate would be sufficiently involved and interested in politics and thus could participate in elections without owning property. Eventually, states abandoned the poll tax all together and allowed free white men the right to vote (every state was different with some allowing women and even other races to vote, while others did not).
It wasn’t until after the Civil War, with the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which prevented states from writing laws that would hinder men from voting who were of a different race, color or previous condition of servitude, that states began to re-implement the poll tax as a new way of preventing certain kinds of people from voting.
It turned out that this poll tax, which was a required payment to the government in order to vote, was less disproportionate racially and more disproportionate financially. In sum, the tax disenfranchised all races equally based upon income. So, in every state that implemented this poll tax, the poor, no matter the race, were prevented from voting.
By the time of Civil Rights Era, only five states still used the poll tax and those states that did use it, used it sparingly. However, the zeitgeist in the country spurred Congress into action, with the goal of forever preventing states from placing a financial requirement on citizens to vote.
The debate in Congress surrounding this issue was vibrant and frankly, beautiful. Could Congress require states to stop the poll tax simply though a law, or was legislating in this realm unconstitutional since the Constitution clearly left most election lawmaking to the states?
“Congress was unsure that it had the power to alter the qualifications for voters, which it believed were fixed by the States. In contrast, if the poll tax was simply a “manner” of holding elections, then Congress could regulate it through ordinary legislation. Poll tax opponents argued that qualifications largely related to fitness for voting (think age and residency restrictions) and that the poll tax was unrelated to fitness. If that were true, then poll taxes were a “manner” of election subject to federal regulation. A few even argued that Congress had the power to regulate qualifications. But the historical record suggested otherwise—poll taxes were qualifications firmly within the states’ domain.
Second, even if there were a plausible claim to regulate poll taxes in congressional elections, Congress’s power to regulate presidential elections was even more limited. State legislatures direct the appointment of presidential electors. Congress’s power is limited to ‘the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes.’ There is no requirement that states hold a popular vote to choose electors. And there is no express power to regulate presidential primaries.”Muller, Professor of Law at Pepperdine University School of Law
I hope the significance of this simple debate resonates with all you as much as it does me. This is how our government is supposed to work. This is how the Constitution is supposed to be respected and treated. This is how power is limited and this is how respect for the Constitution limits power. Instead of bulldozing ahead with a law, Congress paused and faced down their own powers. Could they Constitutionally solve the problem they’d all come to agree was a problem? Was the ability to legislate on this issue actually part of their job description? If not, they couldn’t write a law about the topic, no matter how well intentioned or “good” the law would be. And checks and balances further propped up the power of the Constitution because Congress knew the Court may very well strike down a law preventing poll taxes if the Court deemed it unconstitutional.
It’s brilliant. This is how the whole governing process our founders created is supposed to work.
The Supreme Court had confirmed the Constitutionality of poll taxes many times. This just shows that something being Constitutional is not the same thing as it being subjectively “good” or “bad”. The Constitution has nothing to do with “good” or “bad”. It simply is. It is the law governing our laws. If that Supreme Law ends up allowing laws that society and the states deem problematic, then the Constitution makes a way for the citizenry and the states to come together and change that Constitution.
Far too many times though, the government chooses to ignore the Constitution and simply do what it wants, making the Constitution irrelevant and government’s power limitless.
In this instance, however, the government acted honorably. The men and women in Congress believed that legislating to stop the injustice of poll taxes would itself have been unjust, thus, Congress introduced a Constitutional Amendment that would at least stop states from using a poll tax in federal elections. The states officially ratified the amendment in 1964.
Ah, the times that our Constitutional Republic works beautifully and as it’s designed to work. It would behoove government today to learn from them.
The Liberty Belle
2 thoughts on “The Amendments Series: Poll Taxes”
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I’ve been saying for a long time, the Constitution only covers FEDERAL elections! Any State in the union could separate their voting days and hold federal elections at one time and all others (State and local) at another time AND use whatever voting rules they wanted to use!
The federal government has tremendous authority to regulate federal elections and if you don’t like what they’re requiring (or demanding) of our elections officials…consider new State legislators that would “split the vote” into two separate election dates!