The Twenty-Fourth Amendment was ratified on January 23, 1964. The amendment was largely a response to a problem that had begun at the end of Reconstruction: the poll tax. After the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 (which gave all citizens the right to vote), eleven states in the South instituted poll taxes. These taxes (usually paid once a year), required voters to cough up a small sum of money in order to vote. Though this tax was not high, it was still extremely costly to poor citizens, in particular poor sharecroppers, the majority of which were African-American. Poor whites were also impacted by the poll tax, but some laws allowed them to forego it if their grandfathers had voted – an impossibility for many African-Americans’ grandfathers.
By the 1940s, a movement had begun in Congress to eliminate the poll tax as a voting qualification for federal elections. By 1964, five southern states still retained the poll tax and was seen as an obstacle to fully exercising one’s rights as a citizen, particularly for Black Americans. Since the tax had survived previous constitutional challenges, an amendment was proposed and passed.
“Ratification of the Twenty-fourth Amendment in 1964 marked the culmination of an endeavor begun in Congress in 1939 to eliminate the poll tax as a qualification for voting in federal elections. Property qualifications extend back to colonial days, but the poll tax itself as a qualification was instituted in eleven states of the South following the end of Reconstruction, although at the time of the ratification of this Amendment only five states still retained it.1 Congress viewed the qualification as
an obstacle to the proper exercise of a citizen’s franchise and expected its removal to
provide a more direct approach to participation by more of the people in their government. Congress similarly thought that a constitutional amendment was necessary,2 because the qualifications had previously survived constitutional challenges on several grounds.3” https://constitution.congress.gov/browse/essay/amdt24-S2-1/ALDE_00001011/
Below is a collection of resources on the Twenty-Fourth Amendment the history of the poll tax in America. Browse these resources or jump from section to section by clicking the links below:
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 poll tax or other tax.
The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Selected online resources on the Twenty-Fourth Amendment:
The National Constitution Center offers introductory essays by top legal scholars that explain the meaning of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, reactions to it, and state vs. federal authority over voting qualifications.
In 2018, Kelly Phillips Erb wrote an article for Forbes, tracing the history of the poll tax in America, from colonial times up through the 1960s.
The Library of Congress provides a background of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment and preceding legislation, as well as resources for additional reading.
Virginia Commonwealth University’s Social Welfare History Project has reprinted documentarist George Stoney’s 1940 account of the poll tax in the South. Stoney describes disenfranchisement and provides voting statistics for poll tax states versus the rest of the nation.
*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on voting rights, poll taxes, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, or its history and controversies, and would like your work included here, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.