Twenty-fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution
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Poll taxes appeared in southern states after Reconstruction as a measure to prevent African Americans from voting, and had been held to be constitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in the 1937 decision Breedlove v. Suttles. At the time of this amendment's passage, five states still retained a poll tax: Virginia, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi. The amendment made the poll tax unconstitutional in regard to federal elections. However, it was not until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6–3 in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections (1966) that poll taxes for state elections were unconstitutional because they violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
- Section 1. 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 any poll tax or other tax.
- Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The poll tax was part of a series of laws intended to marginalize black Americans from politics so far as practicable without violating the Fifteenth Amendment, which required that voting not be limited by "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The poll tax had the additional impact of weakening poor white voters who might sympathize with the Populist Party, though this was downplayed by proponents of the poll tax for fear of an electoral backlash against them. Passage of poll taxes began in earnest in the 1890s, as with the end of Reconstruction in 1877, no federal troops remained to enforce black voting rights. By 1902, all eleven states of the former Confederacy had enacted a poll tax. The poll tax worked in conjunction with a variety of disenfranchising measures, such as literacy tests, the "white primary", and threats of violence. For example, potential voters had to be "assessed" in Arkansas, and blacks were ignored in the assessment.
The poll tax was largely ignored, at the federal level, from 1900–1937, though some state-level initiatives repealed it. The poll tax survived a legal challenge in the 1937 Supreme Court case Breedlove v. Suttles, which ruled that "[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." The issue remained prominent, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke out against the tax. He publicly called it "a remnant of the Revolutionary period" that the country had moved past. However, Roosevelt's favored liberal Democrats lost in the 1938 primaries to the reigning conservative Southern Democrats, and he backed off, as he felt he needed Southern Democratic votes to pass New Deal programs and did not want to further antagonize them. Still, efforts at the Congressional level to abolish the poll tax continued. A 1939 bill to abolish the poll tax in federal elections was tied up by lawmakers from the South, whose long tenure in office gave them seniority and a large proportion of committee chairmanships. A discharge petition was able to force the bill to be considered, and the House passed the bill 254–84. However, the bill was unable to defeat a filibuster in the Senate by Southern senators and a few Northern allies who valued the support of the powerful and senior Southern seats. This bill would be re-proposed in the next several Congresses, coming closest to passage thanks to World War II and the ability to frame abolition of the poll tax as a way to help overseas soldiers vote. However, senators from the South dug in their heels upon news of the Supreme Court decision Smith v. Allwright, which banned the "white primary". The poll tax remained one of the few "legitimate" methods of restricting the franchise. The bill came closest to passing in 1946. 24 Democrats and 15 Republicans approved an end to debate, while 7 non-southern Democrats and 7 Republicans joined with the 19 Southern Democrats in opposition. The result was a 39-33 vote in favor of the bill, but the filibuster required a two-thirds supermajority to break at the time; a 48-24 vote was required to pass the bill.[clarification needed] Those in favor of abolition of the poll tax considered a constitutional amendment after the 1946 defeat, but that idea did not advance either.
The tenor of the debate changed in the 1940s. While in the 1890s and 1900s, politicians had been open about desiring to restrict the black vote, by the 1940s Southern politicians attempted to move the debate to Constitutional issues. Private correspondence indicates that black disenfranchisement was still the true concern, however, and indiscreet Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo declared "If the poll tax bill passes, the next step will be an effort to remove the registration qualification, the educational qualification of Negroes. If that is done we will have no way of preventing the Negroes from voting." This fear explains why Southern Senators from states that had abolished the poll tax still opposed the bill; they did not want to set a precedent that the federal government could interfere in elections. President Harry S. Truman established the President's Committee on Civil Rights, which among other issues investigated the poll tax. Considering that the opposition to federal poll tax regulation in 1948 was claimed to be a Constitutional one, it noted that a constitutional amendment might be the best way to proceed. Still, little occurred during the 1950s, as the anti-poll tax movement laid low during the anti-Communist mood of the time; some of the main proponents of poll tax abolition, such as Joseph Gelders and Vito Marcantonio, had been committed Marxists.
The Twenty-fourth Amendment, long proposed, was finally sent to the states for ratification at the behest of President John F. Kennedy, who brought the issue back into public consciousness. Kennedy considered the constitutional amendment the best way to avoid a filibuster, as the claim that federal abolition of the poll tax was unconstitutional would be moot. Still, some liberals opposed Kennedy's action, feeling that an amendment would be too slow compared to legislation. Spessard Holland, a conservative Democrat from Florida, introduced the amendment to the Senate. Holland opposed most civil rights legislation during his career, and Kennedy's gaining of his support helped splinter monolithic Southern opposition to the Amendment. Ratification of the amendment took only slightly more than a year, however, as it was rapidly ratified by state legislatures across the country from August 1962 to January 1964. President Johnson called the amendment a "triumph of liberty over restriction" and "a verification of people's rights." States that maintained the poll tax were more reserved. Mississippi's Attorney General, Joe Patterson, complained about the complexity of two sets of voters - those who paid their poll tax and could vote in all elections, and those who had not and could only vote in federal elections. Additionally, non-payers of the poll tax could still be deterred somewhat by forcing them to register far in advance of the election.
Proposal and ratification
Congress proposed the Twenty-fourth Amendment on August 27, 1962. The amendment was submitted to the states on September 24, 1962, after it passed with the requisite two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate. The following states ratified the amendment:
- Illinois (November 14, 1962)
- New Jersey (December 3, 1962)
- Oregon (January 25, 1963)
- Montana (January 28, 1963)
- West Virginia (February 1, 1963)
- New York (February 4, 1963)
- Maryland (February 6, 1963)
- California (February 7, 1963)
- Alaska (February 11, 1963)
- Rhode Island (February 14, 1963)
- Indiana (February 19, 1963)
- Utah (February 20, 1963)
- Michigan (February 20, 1963)
- Colorado (February 21, 1963)
- Ohio (February 27, 1963)
- Minnesota (February 27, 1963)
- New Mexico (March 5, 1963)
- Hawaii (March 6, 1963)
- North Dakota (March 7, 1963)
- Idaho (March 8, 1963)
- Washington (March 14, 1963)
- Vermont (March 15, 1963)
- Nevada (March 19, 1963)
- Connecticut (March 20, 1963)
- Tennessee (March 21, 1963)
- Pennsylvania (March 25, 1963)
- Wisconsin (March 26, 1963)
- Kansas (March 28, 1963)
- Massachusetts (March 28, 1963)
- Nebraska (April 4, 1963)
- Florida (April 18, 1963)
- Iowa (April 24, 1963)
- Delaware (May 1, 1963)
- Missouri (May 13, 1963)
- New Hampshire (June 12, 1963)
- Kentucky (June 27, 1963)
- Maine (January 16, 1964)
- South Dakota (January 23, 1964)
Ratification was completed on January 23, 1964. Georgia did make a last-second attempt at being the 38th state to ratify – something of a surprise as "no Southern help could be expected" for the amendment – but despite the Georgia Senate quickly and unanimously passing it, the House did not act in time. Georgia's ratification was apparently dropped after South Dakota's ratification.
The amendment was subsequently ratified by the following states:
- Virginia (February 25, 1977)
- North Carolina (May 3, 1989)
- Alabama (April 11, 2002)
- Texas (May 22, 2009)
The amendment was specifically rejected by the following state:
- Mississippi (December 20, 1962)
The following states have not ratified the amendment:
- South Carolina
Arkansas effectively repealed its poll tax for all elections with Amendment 51 to the Arkansas Constitution at the November 1964 general election, several months after this amendment was ratified, though the poll-tax language was not completely stricken from its Constitution until Amendment 85 in 2008. Of the five states originally affected by this amendment, Arkansas was the only one to voluntarily repeal its poll tax; the other four retained their taxes until they were struck down in 1966 by Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections (see below), though Federal district courts in Alabama & Texas struck down their poll taxes less than two months before Harper.
The state of Virginia reacted by allowing an "escape clause" to the poll tax. In lieu of paying the poll tax, a prospective voter could file paperwork to gain a certificate establishing a place of residence in Virginia. The papers would have to be filed six months in advance, a measure expected to decrease the number of legal voters. In the 1965 Supreme Court decision Harman v. Forssenius, the Court unanimously found such measures unconstitutional and declared that for federal elections, "the poll tax is abolished absolutely as a prerequisite to voting, and no equivalent or milder substitute may be imposed."
While not directly related to the Twenty-fourth Amendment, the 1966 Supreme Court case Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections ruled that the poll tax was unconstitutional at every level, not just for federal elections. The Harper decision relied upon the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, rather than the Twenty-Fourth Amendment. As such, issues related to whether burdens on voting are equivalent to poll taxes have usually been litigated on Equal Protection grounds since.
- United States Government Printing Office. "TWENTY- FOURTH AMENDMENT TO THE CONSTITUTION". gpo.gov.
- Ogden, p. 4–13, 170–231.
- Breedlove v. Suttles, majority opinion.
- Lawson, p. 57.
- Lawson, p. 68.
- Lawson, p. 74.
- Lawson, p. 80.
- Lawson, p. 70.
- Lawson, p. 82.
- Lawson, p. 290.
- "Spessard L. Holland Dies at 79; Former Senator From Florida". The New York Times. November 7, 1971. Retrieved July 4, 2011.
- "24th Amendment, Banning Poll Tax, Has Been Ratified". The New York Times. United Press International. January 24, 1964. Retrieved July 4, 2011.
- "End of the Poll Tax". The Milwaukee Journal. January 26, 1964. Retrieved July 4, 2011.
- Mount, Steve (January 2007). "Ratification of Constitutional Amendments". Retrieved October 11, 2008.
- Historical Highlights: The 24th Amendment
- Arkansas Code - Free Public Access (LexisNexis)
- Chadwick, John. Poll Tax Battle Long One, Associated Press.
- Harman v. Forssenius, majority opinion.
- Lawson, Steven F. (1976). Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944-1969. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Ogden, Frederic D. (1958). The Poll Tax in the South. University of Alabama Press.