County Poll Tax List

Poll Tax

A poll tax is a tax levied as a prerequisite for voting. After Reconstruction (1865–1877)—the twelve-year period of rebuilding that followed the American Civil War (1861–1865)—many southern states passed poll taxes in an effort to keep African Americans from voting. As a result, many African Americans (and other impoverished citizens) who could not afford to pay the poll tax were disfranchised and deprived of their rights as citizens. In 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted, stipulating that an individual's right to vote could not be denied by any state on the basis of race or color. Southern state legislators, however, soon looked for other ways to keep the vote from African Americans, which inevitably, and perhaps by design, blocked some white Americans. In response, many state legislatures drew up grandfather clauses to ensure that non–African American constituents were included in the voting process. The U.S. Supreme Court declared grandfather clauses unconstitutional in 1915 and again in 1939, but poll taxes had greater longevity and remained in effect into the era of the civil rights movement. The Twenty-fourth Amendment, ratified in 1964, outlawed the use of this tax (or any other tax) as a pre-condition in voting in federal elections, and the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections extended this ruling, stating that the imposition of a poll tax in state elections violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. MORE...

 

Early History of the Poll Tax

The Virginia poll tax dates back to the first meeting of the General Assembly in 1619 in Jamestown. The members assessed each person in the colony a tax of one pound of tobacco to compensate the legislature's speaker, clerk, and sergeant at arms. Until the American Revolution (1775–1783), local governments in the colony collected most of their revenue by annually setting a tax rate for each male head of a household and for every white male laborer and every enslaved laborer. The parishes of the Church of England (the established church in Virginia until 1786) also levied poll taxes to pay ministers, to provide for upkeep of the churches, and to take care of the local poor and orphans. People on whom the tax was owed were called "tithables." Between the Revolution and the Civil War, the tax on people continued to be the principal source of income for local governments. The right to vote was vested only in adult, white, property-owning men until 1851, when the Virginia State Constitution ratified that year removed the property qualification, which meant that all white male residents of Virginia could now vote. (Virginia's 1864 Constitution, adopted for the so-called Restored Government of Virginia, also did not link payment of the poll tax to the right to vote.)

The Virginia poll tax reemerged following the Civil War as a source of revenue for the new public school system, but as early as 1871 the governor proposed that payment of the tax be made a prerequisite for voting. In 1876, the state's Conservative Party (which soon became the Democratic Party) succeeded in amending the state constitution, for the first time denying the right to vote to men who had not paid the state poll tax. At that same time, another amendment denied the vote to men who had been convicted of petty crimes. The two amendments were understood to be aimed at making it more difficult for African American males to vote, since many poor black families could not pay the tax. Additionally, white supremacists' assumption that black men were inherently less honest than white men was another way to target the African American community, since under that assumption they would be more likely to commit petty criminal acts.

The Constitution of 1902 and the Byrd Machine

In 1882, the Readjusters (a coalition of disgruntled Democrats, Republicans, and African Americans that was committed to refinancing the state's public debt and preserving the new public school system) amended the constitution to remove payment of the poll tax as a prerequisite to voting. Nevertheless, the State Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902 met for the express purpose of disfranchising as many African American voters as possible reinstituted the poll tax as a prerequisite for voter registration. Article II of the Constitution of 1902 included, among other restrictive provisions, a requirement that any person who applied to register to vote in or after 1904 must present proof that he had paid a poll tax of $1.50 for each of the three years preceding an election. That and other provisions of the constitution and the enabling laws enacted in 1904 effectively denied suffrage to most of the state's African American men and to about half of the white men who had voted before it was proclaimed in force.

After the poll tax became a prerequisite for voter registration, tax collectors made no attempt to collect it, and there was no legal penalty other than disfranchisement for failure to pay it. Because payment of the tax became an essential step in winning elections, both Democratic and Republican Party officials raised money, sometimes through unethical or illegal means, to pay the poll taxes of men (and, after 1920, of women) who they believed would vote the way they desired. Democratic tax collectors and registrars made it difficult or impossible in many instances for Republicans or African Americans to pay the tax or to register or to vote.

The dominant faction of the Virginia Democratic Party under the leadership of governor Harry F. Byrd Sr. (in office from February 1926 to January 1930) resisted proposals to abolish the poll tax. In 1938 and 1940, then-governor James H. Price proposed that the poll tax be reduced from $1.50 to $1.00, but Byrd Organization leaders in the General Assembly defeated the proposal. In 1941, Price requested that the Virginia Advisory Legislative Council investigate the poll tax and report to the General Assembly. The report, prepared by distinguished University of Virginia political scientist Robert K. Gooch, in effect declared the poll tax a source of political corruption that led to block payments of poll taxes and the refusal of some registrars to register African Americans. The report bluntly declared that opposition to repeal was "founded on disbelief in political democracy as the basis of government and on distrust of the operation in practice of government so based … Advocacy of retention of the poll-tax and genuine belief in political democracy are basically irreconcilable." The Advisory Council refused to print or release the report, dooming Price's last chance for repeal.

Demise of the Poll Tax

Immediately after World War II (1939–1945), reformers within the party and wartime governor Colgate Whitehead Darden proposed to repeal the poll tax as an embarrassing and indefensible barrier to democracy in the state. Even though the General Assembly reluctantly proposed a constitutional amendment to abolish the poll tax, the party's leadership rallied behind the poll tax, and the amendment was defeated in the November 1949 ratification referendum.

In November 1963, Evelyn Thomas Butts, a civil rights activist from Norfolk, filed suit in federal court to have the poll tax declared unconstitutional as an undue financial burden on the franchise that violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and in March 1964 Annie E. Harper and three other people from Fairfax County filed another federal suit against the poll tax. Harper's appeal from an adverse ruling of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reached the U.S. Supreme Court before Butts's appeal, and the resulting combined cases were decided in March 1966 as Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections. The Supreme Court declared the poll tax unconstitutional. In the meantime, the 1964 ratification of the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed imposition of a poll tax as a requirement for voting in federal elections, and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 made imposition of the poll tax as a prerequisite for voting a violation of federal law. Those steps in the elimination of the poll tax as a prerequisite for voting all arose from outside the political process in Virginia—a process that had made it virtually impossible for disfranchised people to attain their political objectives, even the right to vote. The Virginia Constitution of 1970 omitted authorization of the General Assembly to make payment of a poll tax a prerequisite for voting.

Time Line

  • 1619 - At the first meeting of the General Assembly in Jamestown, the members agree to assess each person in the colony a tax of one pound of tobacco to compensate the legislature's speaker, clerk, and sergeant at arms.
  • 1850–1851 - After a contentious struggle, delegates at the Virginia constitutional convention eliminate the property qualification for the right to vote, which means that all white male residents of Virginia can now vote.
  • February 3, 1870 - The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting African American men the right to vote, is ratified. The amendment states: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
  • 1871 - Virginia governor Gilbert C. Walker proposes that payment of the poll tax be made a prerequisite for voting.
  • 1876 - Virginia's Conservative Party (which soon becomes the Democratic Party) succeeds in amending the state constitution, for the first time denying the right to vote to men who had not paid the state poll tax.
  • 1882 - The Readjusters (a coalition of disgruntled Democrats, Republicans, and African Americans committed to refinancing the state's public debt and preserving the new public school system) amend the Virginia state constitution to remove payment of the poll tax as a prerequisite to voting.
  • 1902 - Provisions of the newly passed Virginia Constitution effectively deny suffrage to most of Virginia's African American men and to about half of the white men who had voted before it was passed.
  • 1904 - Beginning this year, any person in Virginia who applies to register to vote must present proof that he has paid a poll tax of $1.50 for each of the three years preceding an election.
  • August 1920 - Virginia women gain the right to vote after the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution becomes law.
  • 1938 and 1940 - Virginia governor James H. Price proposes that the poll tax be reduced from $1.50 to $1.00, but Byrd Organization leaders in the General Assembly defeat the proposal.
  • 1941 - Virginia governor James H. Price requests that the Virginia Advisory Legislative Council investigate the poll tax. The ensuing report declares the poll tax a source of political corruption that leads to block payments of poll taxes and the refusal to register African Americans. The Advisory Council refuses to print or release the report.
  • November 1949 - The Virginia General Assembly reluctantly proposes a constitutional amendment to abolish the poll tax, but the Democratic Party's leadership rallies behind the poll tax, and the amendment is defeated in the November 1949 ratification referendum.
  • November 1963 - Evelyn Thomas Butts, a civil rights activist from Norfolk, files suit in federal court to have the poll tax declared unconstitutional as an undue financial burden on the franchise that violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • March 1964 - Annie E. Harper and three other African American residents of Fairfax County file suit against the Virginia State Board of Elections, charging that the poll tax is unconstitutional.
  • August 6, 1965 - U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, guaranteeing that no person shall be denied the right to vote based on race or color. Several special provisions impose even more stringent requirements in certain jurisdictions throughout the country, including Virginia.
  • March 24, 1966 - In the case of Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the poll tax is unconstitutional.
  • 1970 - The Virginia Constitution of 1970 omits authorization of the General Assembly to make payment of a poll tax a prerequisite for voting.
Further Reading
Buni, Andrew. The Negro in Virginia Politics, 1902–1965. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1967.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Tarter, B. Poll Tax. (2014, July 2). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Poll_Tax.

  • MLA Citation:

    Tarter, Brent. "Poll Tax." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2 Jul. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: October 8, 2009 | Last modified: July 2, 2014


Contributed by Brent Tarter, founding editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography.