Poll taxes, also known as head taxes, soul taxes, or capitation taxes, are taxes that are levied upon individuals, rather than on income or property. Economists are divided over the efficacy of the poll tax. Some economists argue that the poll tax is a regressive tax, while others argue it is an effective mechanism for ensuring that public expenditures more closely reflect public demand. Although poll taxes are technically revenue measures, their enactment can have political implications.
Poll taxes have been part of recorded human history with Ptolemaic Egypt leaving the first records of these taxes. The poll tax has been used intermittently in European countries such as Britain, Prussia, and Russia since the Middle Ages. It was also used in some areas of the Ottoman Empire. Some European countries such as Britain and France also imposed poll taxes (also known as hut taxes) on their colonies in Africa and Asia.
In the United States poll taxes date back to its colonial era. In some jurisdictions poll taxes were linked to suffrage, while in other jurisdictions the poll tax was simply another form of revenue. In the post–Civil War era, the poll tax emerged as one of the techniques used by southern whites to disenfranchise African Americans. Along with other disenfranchising techniques, the poll tax was designed to be an instrument that could evade the reach of the Fifteenth Amendment (stating that no state may deny or abridge the right of citizens to vote on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude; citizens may not be prevented from voting due to race) and any other federal intervention. In order to be eligible to vote, an individual had to pay a poll tax. In some cases the poll tax had to be paid almost a year in advance of the election, and in other cases the tax had to be paid for a certain period of years. In the aftermath of the political upheaval of populism (a social movement of southern and western farmers and workers) in the late 1890s, the poll tax also became a device used by the southern political elite to decrease the influence of poor whites on southern politics. By 1908, all of the southern states had enacted a poll tax. By the 1930s, as a result of the poll tax, it was estimated that white electoral participation dropped to less than a third of the total voting age population.
The administration of poll taxes varied across the states. Some states added the bill automatically to other tax bills, while other states required individuals to make a separate payment. Some states required annual payments, while others also included cumulative charges as well. These back taxes, coupled with the low cash income of many southerners, made voting an expensive proposition, thereby further depressing voter registration. Varied enforcement or non-enforcement of poll tax payments and the varied provisions across the states made the impact of poll taxes on a particular state’s rate of electoral participation hard to calculate. A number of states included exemptions based on age or veteran status. What was easier to calculate was the fiscal impact of poll taxes. Although supporters of the poll tax claimed that the taxes provided an important revenue source for local school systems, most analyses showed that only a minute fraction of school funds derived from poll tax revenues.
Although most African American leaders opposed the poll tax, leaders and organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for example, did not actively pursue poll tax reform until the 1930s. In addition to African Americans, southern women activists increasingly viewed the poll tax as a gender and class issue that undercut the promise of the Nineteenth Amendment (guaranteeing all American women the right to vote). Given the overall low incomes of white families, gender roles ensured that if a choice had to be made between paying the poll tax to ensure the right of a male to vote versus a female, the male’s right to vote would invariably win out. V. O. Key Jr. (1908–1963) and his student Frederic Ogden were two of the first political scientists to systematically study the effect of the poll tax on electoral participation in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The political scientists’ conclusion that the poll tax affected more whites than blacks was weakened as they did not consider the cumulative effects of the poll tax and other disenfranchising techniques on African Americans, nor did they consider the effects of this tax on the electoral participation of women.
By the late 1930s, with the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), a variety of groups such as the Southern Conference on Human Welfare, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the NAACP, allied with two newly formed organizations, the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax and the Southern Electoral Reform League, to press for congressional enactment of a poll-tax bill. As a result of this mobilization as well as other developments, the poll tax emerged as an important national civil rights issue in the pre-Brown v. Board of Education (1954) era. By the end of the 1940s, the House of Representatives would ultimately pass five anti–poll tax bills, which in turn were repeatedly filibustered in the Senate by southern Democrats.
Concurrent with legislative attempts to attack the poll tax, opponents of the tax also turned to the courts where they encountered little encouragement. For example, in 1937 the Supreme Court indicated in Breedlove v. Suttles 302 U.S. 277 that it was not willing to see the poll tax as a suffrage test. Another important case was decided in 1941. Pirtle v. Brown (118 F.2d 218 ) affirmed the right of states to set voter qualifications.
Despite these setbacks at the congressional and judicial level, poll tax reform achieved some success at the state level. By 1953 six out of the eleven southern states had abolished the poll tax. North Carolina abolished the tax in 1920; Louisiana in 1934; Florida in 1937; Georgia in 1947; Tennessee in 1951, and South Carolina in 1952. Of the remaining five states, two states (Alabama and Arkansas) reformed their poll taxes by decreasing the cumulative feature and the amount of the tax, and three states (Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia) failed in their attempts to repeal or amend the tax.
Nevertheless, as the civil rights movement unfolded the poll tax became less of an immediate issue. Its applicability to federal elections was prohibited in 1964 with the ratification of the Twenty-fourth Amendment, which stated: “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 Senators 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.” Despite this amendment, some states still tried to use poll taxes. A later court case, Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections 383 U.S. 663 (1966) extended the reach of the Twenty-fourth Amendment to state elections.
In Europe, Great Britain had enacted short-lived poll taxes in 1379 and in 1641. More recently, the British government during the administration of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (b. 1925) tried to enact a poll tax in 1990 as a means of controlling local government expenditures. Although initially successfully implemented in Scotland in 1989, the administration’s attempt to enact a poll tax in England was met with stiff resistance by a broad range of groups. This resistance ultimately culminated in protests and riots in March 1990. The poll tax riots, as well as other factors, led to the end of the Thatcher administration. Despite the resistance, the poll tax survived under slightly different form as the Community Charge or Council Tax.
SEE ALSO Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Key, V. O., Jr.; Left Wing; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Politics, Southern; Roosevelt, Franklin D.; Suffrage, Women’s; Taxes; Thatcher, Margaret; Voting; Women and Politics
Key, V. O., Jr., with Alexander Heard. 1949. Southern Politics in State and Nation. New York: Knopf.
Odgen, Frederic D. 1958. The Poll Tax in the South. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press
Woodard, C. Vann. 1951. Origins of the New South, 1877–1913. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University.
A poll tax is a tax levied as a prerequisite for voting. After Reconstruction (1865–1877), the twelve-year period of rebuilding that followed the American Civil War (1861–1865), many southern states passed poll taxes in an effort to keep African Americans from voting. As a result many African Americans (and other impoverished citizens) who could not afford to pay the poll tax were disenfranchised (deprived of their rights as citizens).
In 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment was adopted, stipulating that an individual's right to vote cannot be denied by any state on the basis of race or color. But southern state legislators soon looked for other ways to keep the vote from African Americans, as well as some white Americans. Some states adopted literacy tests: In order to vote, a person had to first pass a strict test; those who failed were denied the right to vote. But in addition to excluding poorly educated African Americans from voting, the measure also affected many others who were also poorly educated, regardless of ethnicity. In response, many state legislatures drew up "grandfather clauses" to ensure non-African American constituents were included in the voting process. For example, Louisiana's grandfather clause granted voting rights only to citizens who were eligible to vote, or whose direct ancestors were eligible to vote, on January 1, 1867, a period when few of the state's African Americans could vote. By the early 1900s, most southern states had adopted this method of keeping former slaves and other African Americans from getting involved in government.
The U.S. Supreme Court declared grandfather clauses unconstitutional in 1915 and again in 1939. But the poll taxes had greater longevity and remained in effect into the Civil Rights Movement. In 1964 poll taxes in U.S. federal elections were finally made illegal; two years later they were prohibited in all government elections held in the United States, including state and local elections.
See also: Discrimination, Fifteenth Amendment
POLL TAX. A tax levied on each person within a particular class (for example, adult male) rather than on his property or income is called a poll, head, or capitation tax. Poll taxes were employed in all the American colonies at one period or another. It was Virginia's only direct tax for years, and before the Revolution Maryland had practically no other direct tax. Poll taxes continued to be levied by most states through the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. In 1923 thirty-eight states permitted or required the collection of poll taxes. The amount of the tax varied from one to five dollars, and the proceeds were often allocated to specific public facilities, such as state schools or roads.
For many years states (five states as late as 1962) used the poll tax as a means of discouraging blacks from registering to vote by making the payment of the tax a prerequisite to the exercise of the right to vote.
In 1964 the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, nullifying all state laws requiring payment of a poll tax as a condition "to vote in any [federal] primary or other [federal] election."
Woodward, C. Vann. The Origins of the New South, 1877–1913. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951.
Harold W.Chase/a. g.
A poll tax (capitation tax, head tax) is typically levied on every adult (or adult male) within the taxing jurisdiction. An old technique for raising revenue, the tax in its compulsory form raises no important constitutional questions. (Under Article I, section 9, Congress can levy a poll tax only by apportionment to the national census. Congress has not in fact raised revenue this way.)
Serious constitutional issues have been raised in this century by poll taxes whose payment is "voluntary," enforced only by conditioning voter registration on their payment. Early in the nation's history, payment of such taxes came to replace property ownership as a qualification for voting. By the civil war, however, widespread acceptance of universal suffrage had virtually eliminated the poll tax as a condition on voting.
In a number of southern states, the poll tax returned in the 1890s along with segregation as a means of maintaining white supremacy. In theory and in early practice, poor whites as well as blacks were kept from voting by this means. Later, however, some registrars learned to use the device mainly for purposes of racial discrimination, requiring only black would-be voters to produce their receipts for poll tax payments—in some states for payments going back to the voter's twenty-first year. The poll tax gradually fell from favor as a means of keeping blacks from voting; "good character" requirements and literacy tests, for example, were more readily adapted to this purpose. By 1940 only seven states retained the poll tax as a voting condition.
in breedlove v. suttles (1937), a case involving a white applicant for registration, the Supreme Court upheld Georgia's use of the poll tax as a condition on voting. The poll tax remained a civil rights issue, kept alive in Congress by the regular introduction of bills to abolish its use. Southern committee chairmanships and senatorial filibusters succeeded in sidetracking this legislation. When the twenty-fourth amendment was finally submitted to the states in 1962, it forbade the use of poll taxes as a condition on voting only in federal, not state, elections. The Amendment was ratified in 1964.
Two years later, the Supreme Court held, in harper v. virginia board of elections (1966), that conditioning voting in state elections on poll tax payments denied the equal protection of the laws. Only four states still retained the device, but its elimination eloquently symbolized the relation between voting rights and the equal citizenship of all Americans.
Kenneth L. Karst
Myrdal, Gunnar 1944 An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Chaps. 22–23. New York: Harper & Brothers.