Universal ballot access for adult citizens in the United States has for much of its history not been a reality. At the very founding of the nation, you had to own real estate to qualify to vote. Property requirements were repealed over time but after the War of the Rebellion Southern states began looking at ways to restrict black voting. By the early 1900s, all Southern states had poll taxes in place. The poll tax negatively impacted people of lesser means, compromising the ability to vote of blacks, poor whites, women, and the elderly. However, for blacks, the poll tax was one of several legal means used to politically neuter them. However, in 1920, North Carolina became the first Southern state to repeal their poll tax, with Louisiana and Florida following suit in 1934 and 1937 respectively. In 1937, the Supreme Court in Breedlove v. Suttles unanimously upheld Georgia’s poll tax when challenged for granting women an exception and for making age exceptions. In 1941, Representative Lee Geyer (D-Calif.) sponsored a bill to ban the poll tax for federal elections. The bill passed the House on October 13, 1942 254-84 (D 124-80, R 126-4) after Geyer’s 1941 death, but the Senate wouldn’t proceed due to Southern obstruction. Rep. William Colmer (D-Miss.) had denounced the bill as a “force bill” that had as its purpose “to enfranchise the Negro in the South” (Jenkins and Peck, 150). Rep. Arthur Mitchell (D-Ill.), the House’s only black member at the time, wouldn’t accept that criticism of the bill. He responded, “if the Negro is good enough to…shed blood for the country, then he is entitled to vote in peacetime as well as wartime” (Jenkins and Peck, 150).
Given Geyer’s passing, the bill needed a new House sponsor for the 78th Congress, and in stepped Vito Marcantonio, the sole representative from the socialist American Labor Party of New York. He pushed a new version of the anti-poll tax bill previously proposed by Sen. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) which prohibited the use of the poll tax for federal elections and primaries. This measure passed the House 265-110 (D 92-93, R 169-17) on May 25th, but again met with a Southern filibuster which killed the legislation. In 1945, Marcantonio tried again, the measure passing the House 251-105 (D 118-86, R 131-19) on June 12th but once again Southern senators successfully blocked it. Because Marcantonio, who was pro-communist, was the sponsor of the 1943 and 1945 bills, Southern Democrats used this to tag the bill as something that fulfilled a communist agenda despite far broader support as evidenced by roll call votes. As Rep. John Rankin (D-Miss.) charged, “communism…is responsible for bringing this measure to the floor of the House, when everyone knows it violates the Constitution of the United States” (Jenkins and Peck, 153). Others charged it was nothing more than political opportunism on the part of Northern politicians who had significant black constituencies. Most of the opposition to such measures came from Southern Democrats interested in preserving the Jim Crow system, but there were a few who genuinely thought that a poll tax ban by legislative means was unconstitutional. For instance, Rep. John W. Byrnes (R-Wis.), one of the GOP’s tax experts, opposed legislative efforts to ban the poll tax, but supported most other civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the 1946 elections Republicans won control of Congress, and the conservative 80th Congress also passed a poll tax bill in the House, this one being sponsored by Rep. George Bender (R-Ohio), a protégé of Senator Robert Taft. This measure passed on July 21, 1947 on a vote of 290-112 (R 216-14, D 73-98). The bill met the same fate as the others in the Senate.
In 1949, one last legislative try in the House was attempted with Rep. Mary Norton (D-N.J.) being the sponsor instead of Marcantonio, but this didn’t impact how representatives voted, with it passing 273-116 (D 150-92; R 121-24) on July 26th. The bill met the same fate the last four had met in the Senate. However, an alternative proposal was gaining support: a constitutional amendment. In 1944, the Republican platform included support for a constitutional amendment banning the poll tax for federal elections and the proposal gained a significant supporter in Sen. Spessard Holland (D-Fla.). Although a segregationist, he represented a state that had already repealed its poll tax and he didn’t think a constitutional amendment constituted a precedent for passing civil rights legislation.
In the 1950s, the civil rights emphasis became more about voting rights generally in the South, and two watered-down civil rights bills became law, thus progress on the poll tax amendment was delayed. However, in 1962, the proposal came to the floor of the Senate. By this point, only five states, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia, had poll taxes on the books and of those states Alabama and Mississippi were reported by the Civil Rights Commission at the time to have continued providing active barriers to black voting. As Charles Goodell (R-N.Y.), who opposed the measure because he thought it too weak, noted, “It will apparently have no significant effect upon Negro rights anywhere except in Alabama and Mississippi and its effect in those two States is questionable” (Congressional Record, 17664). Although President Kennedy and Congressional liberals would have preferred a legislative repeal of the poll tax, they supported the constitutional amendment and it passed the Senate on March 27th 77-16 (D 47-15, R 30-1). The House followed suit on August 27th 295-86 (D 163-71, R 132-15). The amendment was ratified two years later. Although in 1965 a ban on state poll taxes was debated for inclusion in the Voting Rights Act, it was rejected in favor of it being resolved in the courts. The following year, the Supreme Court in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections found poll taxes unconstitutional at state level on a 6-3 vote. Justice Hugo Black, the only member of the court who also voted on the Breedlove decision, was one of the three dissenters. With that decision ended the usage of poll taxes for any elections in the United States.
Breedlove v. Suttles, 302 U.S. 277 (1937).
Harper v. Virginia Bd. of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966).
Jenkins, J.A. and Peck, J. (2013, February). Building Toward Major Policy Change: Congressional Action on Civil Rights, 1941-1950. Law and History Review, 31(1).
HR 7. Making Unlawful the Requirement for the Payment of a Poll Tax as a Prerequisite for Voting in a Primary or Other Election for National Officers. On Passage. Govtrack.
HR 29. Make Unlawful the Requirements for the Payment of a Poll Tax as a Prerequisite to Voting in a Primary or Other Election for National Officers. Motion to Suspend Rules and Pass. Govtrack.
HR 3199. Passage. Govtrack.
To Pass H.R. 7, a Bill to Make Unlawful the Requirement for Payment of a Poll Tax as a Prerequisite for Voting in a Primary or Other Election of National Office-Holders. Govtrack.
Representative Goodell (NY). “Qualifications of Electors.” Congressional Record 108: 13 (August 27, 1962) p. H17664.
S.J. Res. 29. Approval of Resolution Banning the Poll Tax as Prerequisite for Voting in Federal Elections. Govtrack.
S.J. Res. 29. Constitutional Amendment to Ban the Use of Poll Tax as a Requirement for Voting in Federal Elections. Govtrack.
To Pass H.R. 1024 Which Declares Illegal the Requirement of a Poll Tax as a Prerequisite for Voting or Registering to Vote for President, Vice President, or U.S. Representative. Govtrack.