As the November mid-term elections approach, an observance of Constitution Day should acknowledge the importance of the 24th Amendment. The 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964, forbids Congress and states from requiring poll taxes and other taxes in order to vote in federal elections. Poll taxes were enacted by Southern States as a deliberate barrier to deprive Blacks of the right to vote that originally was guaranteed by the 15th Amendment in 1870. The 15th Amendment, which banned the denial of the right-to-vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” theoretically extended voting rights to Black males. In practice, however, there was widespread resistance to the intent of the 15th Amendment and acts of violence, literacy tests, poll taxes, and economic retaliation were used to intimidate and prevent Black men from voting. It wasn’t until almost a century later that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s prevailed in its fight against this long tradition of noxious voting practices used to maintain a white, elite electorate, and secured voting rights for Blacks (and Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and poor whites) in the South and elsewhere.
The 24th Amendment was proposed as a civil rights measure to address the use of poll taxes to deny Blacks the right to vote in the wake of a now infamous 1937 case, Breedlove v. Suttles, which upheld the right of states to impose poll taxes as a “prerequisite of voting.” Like the 15th Amendment, the 24th Amendment encountered resistance from states who sought to impose poll taxes in state elections (which was not prohibited by the 24th Amendment which only applied to federal elections). Finally, in 1966, the Supreme Court in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, explicitly overturned Suttles, holding that unlike literacy test that have “‘some relation to standards designed to promote intelligent use of the ballot,’” poll taxes violated Equal Protection because “[they] make affluence of the voter or payment of any fee an electoral standard.” The opinion’s rationale sang a different tune than earlier in the century, like in Suttles, which once advanced the belief that wealthy and educated should only have the privilege to participate in elections, and that voting was not a fundamental right but one subject to almost unfettered state regulatory discretion. The Harper decision finally confronted, however discretely, the very evident realities of the purposes of poll taxes to disenfranchise Southern Blacks, and struck down poll taxes on the basis that wealth, like race, should not be a pre-condition for voting.
By and large the 24th Amendment has addressed poll taxes and other wealth pre-conditions for voting in America, however, the disenfranchisement of Black males continues to be a matter for concern. According to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group in Washington, D.C., “an estimated 5.3 million Americans, or one in forty-one adults, have currently or permanently lost their voting rights as a result of a felony conviction.” Black males are disproportionately affected by this as “1.4 million African American men, or 13% of black men, are disenfranchised, a rate seven times the national average.” The prospects only get worse as,”[g]iven current rates of incarceration, three in ten of the next generation of black men can expect to be disenfranchised at some point in their lifetime. In states that disenfranchise ex-offenders, as many as 40% of black men may permanently lose their right to vote.”
One manifestation of this problem is sometimes called “the modern day poll tax.” Some argue, and a small number of state courts have agreed, that requirements that people convicted of felonies pay all outstanding legal financial obligations (LFOs) as a condition of re-enfranchisement amounts to a poll tax. In Coronodo v. Naplitano, and Johnson v. Bredesen, federal courts roundly rejected the argument that considers LFOs simply a part of a convicted person’s debt to society that must be paid in full before voting rights may be restored. Most recently, however, a federal case, Harvey v. Brewer, upheld a states’ right to condition the restoration of a felon’s voting rights on the “complet[ion] of the terms of their sentences, which includes the payment of any fines or restitution orders.” This ruling opens the door to allowing the use of LFOs as a condition of re-enfranchisement.
As the parallels between Jim Crow poll taxes and re-enfranchisement LFOs are starkly noticeable, civil rights advocates will have to see whether the 24th Amendment, in the so-called post-racial era, can take on a new meaning to eliminate the “modern day poll tax.”
Richael Faithful is a third-year student at American University Washington College of Law. She is Editor-In-Chief of The Modern American, a legal publication dedicated to diversity and the law. She is also a former community organizer with the Virginia Organizing Project. As a law student she continues organize and advocate for radical, transformative change.
(Photo by Dean Terry.)