Poll tax

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{black, white, people}
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In general, a poll tax or capitation tax is a head tax set at a fixed amount per person. Sometimes, the tax is calculated according to a schedule or formula giving different amounts for different sets of people, e.g. only applying to males from the age of sixteen to sixty not otherwise exempt, on pain of forced but paid labour in lieu (see Corvée in Madagascar).

Outside the United States the term poll tax refers only to such a head tax, without any of the implications of U.S. practice or usage.

Poll taxes in the United States

In U.S. practice, a poll tax was also used as a de facto or implicit pre-condition of the exercise of the ability to vote. This tax emerged in some states of the United States in the late 19th century as part of the Jim Crow laws. After the ability to vote was extended to all races by the enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment, many Southern states enacted poll tax laws which often included a grandfather clause that allowed any adult male whose father or grandfather had voted in a specific year prior to the abolition of slavery to vote without paying the tax. These laws achieved the desired effect of disfranchising African-American and Native American voters as well as poor whites who immigrated after the year specified.

Initially, the United States Supreme Court, in the case of Breedlove v. Suttles, 302 U.S. 277 (1937), found the poll tax to be constitutional. The 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964, reflecting a political compromise,[citation needed] abolished the use of the poll tax (or any other tax) as a pre-condition in voting in Federal elections, but made no mention of poll taxes in state elections.

In the 1966 case of Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections the Supreme Court overruled its decision in Breedlove v. Suttles, and extended, by judicial fiat, the prohibition of poll taxes to state elections, declaring that the imposition of a poll tax in state elections violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The Harper ruling was one of several that rely on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment rather than the more direct provision of the 15th Amendment. In a two-month period in the spring of 1966, the last four states to still have poll tax laws had those laws declared unconstitutional by Federal courts, starting with Texas on 9 February. Decisions followed for Alabama (3 March) and Virginia (25 March). Mississippi's $2.00 poll tax was the last to fall, declared unconstitutional on 8 April 1966, by a Federal panel in Jackson, Mississippi.[1]

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