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Voting Rights - Courts Try To Strike Back

tax property poll practice

With the abolition of literacy tests and the power to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment provided by the Voting Rights Act, there seemed to be no other legal recourse for the denial of suffrage on the basis of race. Unfortunately, this was not the case as proponents of the old political machine now turned to economics to promote their interests. Early in American history voting privileges were reserved for property owners under the presumption that the wealthy would cast more informed votes. This prerequisite eventually gave way to universal suffrage; however, the issue would later resurface in a different form know as the "poll tax." States used the "poll tax" to improve the quality of the voting class presuming that only those genuinely interested in voting would pay for the privilege. In fact the Supreme Court initially upheld this reasoning finding the practice consistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in Breedlove v. Suttles (1937).

Although the poll tax, in theory, does not discriminate against any particular group of people, in practice it had a clear impact on African American participation in the South. To redress the unequal impact of the poll tax Congress passed the Twenty-fourth Amendment which banned the tax in federal elections. It was only a matter of time before the practice of levying a poll tax in state elections would be reviewed in the courts. In Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections (1966) the Court outlawed the practice on the basis of economic discrimination. Justice William O. Douglas explained in his opinion that wealth has nothing to do with whether an individual is capable of casting an intelligent vote.

Another issued related to economic discrimination also came under legal scrutiny in the 1960's. This time, however, the denial of suffrage was not racially motivated. After World War II it became common practice to use property taxes to pay for public services such as education. Some of the decisions on how to use these funds were made at the ballot box. Naturally, those people who owned property were reluctant to permit non-property owners to voice their opinion on the use of this tax money. Some states thus passed laws designed to prohibit the propertyless from voting on such matters. The constitutionality of denying non-property owners the right to vote was addressed In Kramer v. Union Free School District (1969). Individuals who did not own property but had a vested interest in the community such as the clergy, military personnel, the aged, and adults who lived with their parents (which was Kramer's situation) believed they were entitled to express their opinion on the use of local property taxes. The Court upheld this view finding that the state did not have a compelling interest sufficient to deny voting rights on property tax matters.

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