The poll tax, enacted to restrict rights of African-Americans after the Civl War, took around a hundred years to be repealed. But after the tax was eliminated on a federal level, elections changed in several ways. More people turned out to vote, and even election results were influenced.
Background and History of the Poll Tax
After the Civil War, the nation had been torn apart and was in desperate need of order and peace. Reconstruction marked an effort by President Lincoln, and Johnson after Lincoln’s assassination, to reunite the nation and its citizens. While constitutional amendments abolished slavery (the 13th) and granted citizenship to former slaves (14th), barriers still stood between African-Americans and a full range of civil rights and liberties. The poll tax, which required a tax to cast a ballot, oppressed African-Americans living in the South. It wasn’t until 1962 that the practice was deemed unconstitutional and repealed in the 24th Amendment. After the repeal of poll taxes, elections as well as other aspects of life were changed drastically for minorities and those with lower incomes.
Effect on Minorities and the Poor
The Poll Tax limited voting participation from all members of the lower class, regardless of race, simply because a large chunk of voters in the South could not afford to vote. For example, after 1890, fewer than 9,000 of the 147,000 African-Americans of voting age registered. Minimal turnout was the desired effect, and white politicians continued to push an agenda of barring minorities and poor people from participating in their government.
Outcome of Elections
While poll taxes for federal elections were not repealed until 1962, some states chose to eliminate or modify such rulings before that year for state-level elections. The trends reflected by the smaller elections foreshadowed what the effect would be on federal elections after 1962. For example, when Huey Long was elected in 1928 as Louisiana’s governor, he sought to eliminate the poll tax for state elections. This created a shift in power as the wealthy then had to share the decision-making, allowing a more equal balance of power. The absence of a poll tax in all types of elections led to higher voter turnout, too.
Before the 2012 presidential election, discussion about new restrictions at the polls were again in the headlines. States including Florida and West Virginia saw proposed restrictions on early or late voting hours, discouraging people who worked long hours from casting a ballot; the requirement of photo IDs, more rigorous registration processes and other restrictions were also proposed. Politicians favoring the laws said they were needed to reduce voter fraud. Opponents of the restrictions said they would reduce voter turnout and unfairly influence the election results.
- Howard University: Reconstruction Era
- United States House of Representatives: The 24th Amendment
- Smithsonian: White Only: Jim Crow in America
- Congressional Quarterly: Poll Tax
- Brennan Center for Jusice: Election 2012: Voting Laws Roundup
- Huey Long's Programs
- NPR: Why New Photo ID Laws Mean Some Won't Vote
- Comstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images