Guest Essayist: William C. Duncan, Director of the Marriage Law Foundation

Amendment XXIV, 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.

In an effort to circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment’s requirement that the States not deprive a citizen of the right to vote based on race, in the decades from 1890 to 1910 some States began implementing various requirements which were purportedly neutral regarding race but which had the (intended) effect of preventing black citizens from voting. One of the requirements was a poll tax, a specific fee for voting that prevented the poor from voting. (Often the laws were written in a way that would allow white citizens to vote without paying the fee or implemented in this way, such as where a politician bought votes by paying poll taxes for the voters.)

As the moral wrongness of this kind of restriction became harder to deny, States began to remove some of these requirements. Some States had repealed their poll taxes by World War II and others removed them for soldiers in the 1940s. As the national government became more involved in promoting civil rights and ending racial discrimination in the 1950s, the number of states with poll taxes was down to five (Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia).

In 1959, the report of the Commission on Civil Rights (created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957) suggested a national law to allow all Americans to vote subject only to age and residency requirements. One result was the proposal of an amendment to the Constitution to specifically prohibit the imposition of poll taxes. President John F. Kennedy supported the “uncontroversial” amendment. The lack of controversy stemmed from the fact that only five States had such taxes.

Federal courts had previously held poll taxes were not prohibited by the Constitution, so an amendment was necessary. Congress proposed the amendment in August 1962 and it was ratified less than a year and a half later in January 1964.

The Twenty-fourth Amendment only applied to federal elections but not long after its ratification, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that poll taxes in State elections were unconstitutional because they discriminated against the poor. Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966) at,45&as_vis=1.

Virginia passed a law which gave voters a choice between paying the poll tax “or filing a certificate of residence six months before the election.” Congressional Research Service, “Abolition of the Poll Tax” at The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this law conflicted with the new amendment because it created a significant barrier to voting as the only alternative to paying the poll tax. Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528 (1965) at,45&as_vis=1.

Additional source: Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (Basic Books: 2000)

William C. Duncan is director of the Marriage Law Foundation ( He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor.

June 1, 2012

Essay #75

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