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What is a Poll Tax? - Definition & History

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  • 0:01 Definition of a Poll Tax
  • 0:30 The 14th Amendment &…
  • 2:35 The 24th Amendment
  • 4:20 Abolishing State Poll Taxes
  • 5:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Andrea Stephenson

Andrea has a Juris Doctor and has spoken at legal conferences on government transparency.

Can you imagine having to pay a tax in order to vote in an election? Several countries have instituted a poll tax at various times throughout history; most notably, some states in the U.S. Read about the poll taxes enacted by the former Confederate states and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition of Poll Tax

A poll tax is a tax assessed on an individual, usually as a condition of voting in an election. Several countries utilized poll taxes throughout history, though they have not been very popular. One of the most recent examples was when Margaret Thatcher attempted to institute a poll tax in Great Britain in 1990. However, such enactment sparked riots and was eventually repealed by her successor, John Major.

The 14th Amendment and Jim Crow Laws

The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1868. This amendment gave African-American men full citizenship and protection under the laws. In order to combat the amendment, some states, mainly the former Confederate states, began setting up a society in which whites were treated as supreme and African Americans were discriminated against. These states adopted certain laws and legislation known as Jim Crow laws, which separated African Americans from whites. Examples of Jim Crow laws are literacy tests in order to vote, poll taxes, and segregation at work, on buses, schools, and other places.

Jim Crow laws proved effective in deterring African Americans from voting. In fact, after 1890, out of the 147,000 African Americans eligible to vote in Mississippi, fewer than 9,000 were registered in the state. Likewise, in Louisiana, even though in 1896, approximately 130,000 blacks were registered to vote, by 1904, there were only 1,342. However, poll taxes and literacy tests did not just affect African Americans; they also had the effect of keeping poor people of all ethnicities from voting.

Striking down Jim Crow laws was at the forefront of American politics after WWII until the 1960s. The atrocities perpetuated by Nazis against the Jews highlighted an extreme consequence of believing one race is superior to another. Additionally, a mass movement against discrimination and racial segregation known as the American Civil Rights Movement shed additional light on the problem with Jim Crow laws. The American Civil Rights Movement was rooted in the long battle of African Americans to resist oppression and abolish slavery and continued after emancipation in order to attempt to secure complete equal protection. The American civil rights movement came to full prominence in the mid-1950s due to nonviolent protests and speakers such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

The 24th Amendment

Beginning in 1939, legislation to end poll taxes began to be introduced every year in Congress. In light of the WWII atrocities and the Jim Crow laws shocking international delegates in the United Nations, along with pressure from the NAACP and the American Civil Rights Movement, President Harry Truman urged Congress to abolish poll taxes in 1948.

Ultimately, the debate over an amendment lasted for many, many years, due to disagreement in Congress as to whether poll taxes were already outlawed under the 14th Amendment, which abolished slavery by giving equal rights to all men, or the 15th Amendment, which gave African-American men the right to vote. It was eventually decided that drafting an amendment that specifically made poll taxes illegal would be a stronger statement and would more effectively combat discrimination and Jim Crow laws. Finally, on August 27, 1962, the 24th Amendment was passed, which abolished poll taxes in federal elections. At that time, Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas were the only states with poll taxes.

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