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Tue, 11.07.1876

The Poll Tax in America, a story

Poll Tax receipt

*On this date in 1876, the American national election results brought in the illegal use of the Poll Tax in the United States.  

Historically, Poll taxes had been a major source of government funding among the colonies which formed the United States. Poll taxes made up from one-third to one-half of the tax revenue of colonial Massachusetts. Various privileges of citizenship, including voter registration or issuance of driving licenses and resident hunting and fishing licenses, were conditioned on payment of poll taxes to encourage the collection of this tax revenue.  

Although often associated with states of the former Confederate States of America, poll taxes were also in place in northern and western states, including California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin.   Property taxes assumed a larger share of tax revenues as land values rose when population increases encouraged settlement of the American West.  In the United States, payment of a poll tax was a prerequisite to the registration for voting in a number of states. The tax emerged through Rutherford B. Hayes in the 1876 election as part of the Jim Crow laws.

After the right to vote was extended to all races through the Fifteenth Amendment, many Southern states enacted poll tax laws as a device for restricting voting rights. The laws often included a grandfather clause, which 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, along with unfairly implemented literacy tests and extra-legal intimidation, achieved the desired effect of disenfranchising African American and Native American voters, as well as poor whites until court action following ratification of the 24th Amendment in 1964. In 2020, the right to vote remains challenged and this article shows the intersectionality and pattern of voter suppression on black and poor citizens in the last three centuries in America.

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