Cochran Law – Poll Taxes

A few months ago, Florida voters approved a ballot measure that restored the voting rights of approximately 1.5 million former felons. Amendment 4 was touted as a consequential step forward for voting rights in America. However, that didn’t sit well with Republicans in the Sunshine State.

The GOP-controlled legislature is eyeing another piece of legislation that would virtually walk back the step forward Amendment 4 took. The proposal put forth by Republicans would restore the rights of former felons, but with one huge requirement: they must first pay all their fines and fees in full.

Democrats are slamming the measure as being a poll tax because those who are unable to pay their fines or fees in full will be ineligible to vote.

What is a Poll Tax?

If you’re wondering what a poll tax is, that’s a good thing. After all, we haven’t had poll taxes in the United States since the 24th Amendment abolished them in 1964. They do, however, have a history dating back to the colonial times in the United States.

Back then, poll taxes weren’t directly related to voting. Poll taxes translated to “head” tax back in the 1690s. The idea behind the poll tax was that everyone should pay some taxes, even if they had no income or assets that could be taxed. Therefore, poll taxes resulted in more revenue for the government. In this case, that meant England, and our forefathers got a little upset about taxation without representation if you recall.

Fast forward to 1870 when Congress passed the 15th Amendment, giving every citizen the right to vote regardless of race, color, or prior history of slavery. Well, every male citizen, that is, until 1920, when women finally won the right to vote as well.

How Poll Taxes were Hurting

Like the current law giving felons the right to vote, this law didn’t appeal to people both in the south and in the north. Eleven southern states decided to enact a poll tax, effectively charging people to vote. It should be noted that even northern states, like Pennsylvania, had poll taxes.

How the law was administered varied from state to state. Typically, however, residents had to pay the tax when they registered to vote or provide proof of the payment at the polls before they could vote. Some states, like Alabama, required proof that the tax had been paid for years before being eligible to vote.

These taxes were largely an effort to prevent persons of color from voting. However, the constitutionality of this concept was, predictably, taken to court. The first time was in 1951 when the courts surmised that the states were entitled to make their own laws.

However, despite remaining legal on the federal level, by 1962 only 5 states still had poll taxes on the books. That same year the 24th Amendment was passed, outlawing the poll tax in federal elections. However, it did not become part of the Constitution until 1964 when South Dakota ratified it. Eight states still have not ratified the 24th Amendment, but no state currently has a poll tax on the books.

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