The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:
Section 1. 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 any poll tax or other tax.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The Twenty-fourth Amendment was proposed on August 27, 1962, and ratified on January 23, 1964. It prohibits the federal government or the states from making voters pay a poll tax before they can vote in a national election. A poll tax, also called a head tax, is a tax collected equally from all voters. The amendment was proposed as a CIVIL RIGHTS measure because southern states had used the poll tax to keep African Americans from voting.
POLL TAXES were commonly imposed in the United States at the time the Constitution was adopted but had fallen into disuse by the mid-nineteenth century. After the ratification of the FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT in 1870, the poll tax was revived in the South as a way to prevent African Americans, who were mostly poor, from voting. The poll tax also denied poor whites the right to vote. Typically, the unpaid fees would accumulate from election to election, making it more difficult for poor persons to find the economic resources to qualify for voting.
In Breedlove v. Suttles, 302 U.S. 277, 58 S. Ct. 205, 82 L. Ed. 252 (1937), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that poll taxes, by themselves, did not violate the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Amendments. Breedlove led to the introduction of the first poll tax constitutional amendment in 1939 and to efforts to abolish the poll tax through STATE ACTION. By 1960 only five southern states still had poll taxes.
The abolition of the poll tax was not a controversial issue, even at a time of fierce southern resistance to racial desegregation. The amendment was limited to federal elections, however, leaving state elections outside its scope. Following the ratification of the Twenty-fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court abandoned the Breedlove precedent. In Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663, 86 S. Ct. 1079, 16 L. Ed. 2d 169 (1966), the Court struck down poll taxes in state and local elections, ruling that such taxes violated the Fourteenth Amend-ment's Equal Protection Clause.