(An actual poll tax receipt, dating from 1896. Citation: “Poll Tax Receipt, Alabama,” in Teaching with Laurel Grove School, Item #84, http://chnm.gmu.edu/laurelgrove/items/show/84 (accessed February 21, 2012).)
Hey, so you want to vote! As long as you’re a citizen who’s filled out and turned in a voter registration form properly and over the age of 18, you can vote.
But did you know it didn’t used to be so easy? Even though former slaves’ right to vote was recognized and guaranteed in the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870, true and equal access to the ballot across the United States wouldn’t be realized by many until nearly a hundred years later.
In America up until 1964, there was a poll tax. (Click here to see another example.) That meant you had to pay a fee in order to vote. It was legal in Virginia, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi. If you were too poor to afford the poll tax but otherwise satisfied all the other requirements, you were out of luck. At the turn of the century, many African American and white sharecroppers couldn’t afford to pay the poll tax and were therefore unable to vote, and it was intended that way by Southern land-owning whites. Poll taxes were one way people in charge kept “undesirables,” however you define them (usually by race, gender, or class), away from the voting booth on election day. All through the 1950s and into the 1960s, there were areas of the South that charged a poll tax.
It took water cannons, decades of marches, lunch counter sit-ins, lawsuits, bus boycotts, and dangerous bus rides to the South to desegregate bus lines and register voters before the law could be made real for the millions of people who’d fought hard for their right to vote. True enfranchisement, or the unfettered ability to exercise the right to vote, was the product of the Civil Rights movement.
As the result of much struggle and hard work to change legislators’ minds and votes, activists eventually got federal laws changed on January 23, 1964. Representatives in Congress responded to pressure and amended the U.S. Constitution to specifically prohibit exclusionary and discriminatory poll taxes from all the laws in the states in the 24th Amendment. Two years later in 1966, the Supreme Court affirmed that poll taxes prevented people from voting who otherwise had that right, and so Virginia Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966) forever set the legal standard that in any election, whether state, local, or national, all people who are eligible to vote must not be prevented from doing so by paying a fee.