Early History of the Poll Tax
The Virginia poll tax dates back to the first meeting of the General Assembly in 1619 in Jamestown. The members assessed each person in the colony a tax of one pound of tobacco to compensate the legislature’s speaker, clerk, and sergeant at arms. Until the American Revolution (1775–1783), local governments in the colony collected most of their revenue by annually setting a tax rate for each male head of a household and for every white male laborer and every enslaved laborer. The parishes of the Church of England (the established church in Virginia until 1786) also levied poll taxes to pay ministers, to provide for upkeep of the churches, and to take care of the local poor and orphans. People on whom the tax was owed were called “tithables.” Between the Revolution and the Civil War, the tax on people continued to be the principal source of income for local governments. The right to vote was vested only in adult, white, property-owning men until 1851, when the Virginia State Constitution ratified that year removed the property qualification, which meant that all white male residents of Virginia could now vote. (Virginia’s 1864 Constitution, adopted for the so-called Restored Government of Virginia, also did not link payment of the poll tax to the right to vote.)
The Virginia poll tax reemerged following the Civil War as a source of revenue for the new public school system, but as early as 1871 the governor proposed that payment of the tax be made a prerequisite for voting. In 1876, the state’s Conservative Party (which soon became the Democratic Party) succeeded in amending the state constitution, for the first time denying the right to vote to men who had not paid the state poll tax. At that same time, another amendment denied the vote to men who had been convicted of petty crimes. The two amendments were understood to be aimed at making it more difficult for African American males to vote, since many poor Black families could not pay the tax. Additionally, white supremacists’ assumption that Black men were inherently less honest than white men was another way to target the African American community, since under that assumption they would be more likely to commit petty criminal acts.
The Constitution of 1902 and the Byrd Machine
In 1882, the Readjusters (a coalition of disgruntled Democrats, Republicans, and African Americans that was committed to refinancing the state’s public debt and preserving the new public school system) amended the constitution to remove payment of the poll tax as a prerequisite to voting. Nevertheless, the State Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902 met for the express purpose of disfranchising as many African American voters as possible and reinstituted the poll tax as a prerequisite for voter registration. Article II of the Constitution of 1902 included, among other restrictive provisions, a requirement that any person who applied to register to vote in or after 1904 must present proof that he had paid a poll tax of $1.50 for each of the three years preceding an election. That and other provisions of the constitution and the enabling laws enacted in 1904 effectively denied suffrage to most of the state’s African American men and to about half of the white men who had voted before it was proclaimed in force.
After the poll tax became a prerequisite for voter registration, tax collectors made no attempt to collect it, and there was no legal penalty other than disfranchisement for failure to pay it. Because payment of the tax became an essential step in winning elections, both Democratic and Republican Party officials raised money, sometimes through unethical or illegal means, to pay the poll taxes of men (and, after 1920, of women) who they believed would vote the way they desired. Democratic tax collectors and registrars made it difficult or impossible in many instances for Republicans or African Americans to pay the tax or to register or to vote.
The dominant faction of the Virginia Democratic Party under the leadership of Governor Harry F. Byrd Sr. resisted proposals to abolish the poll tax in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1938 and 1940, then-governor James H. Price proposed that the poll tax be reduced from $1.50 to $1.00, but Byrd Organization leaders in the General Assembly defeated the proposal. In 1941, Price requested that the Virginia Advisory Legislative Council investigate the poll tax and report to the General Assembly. The report, prepared by distinguished University of Virginia political scientist Robert K. Gooch, in effect declared the poll tax a source of political corruption that led to block payments of poll taxes and the refusal of some registrars to register African Americans. The report bluntly declared that opposition to repeal was “founded on disbelief in political democracy as the basis of government and on distrust of the operation in practice of government so based … Advocacy of retention of the poll-tax and genuine belief in political democracy are basically irreconcilable.” The Advisory Council refused to print or release the report, dooming Price’s last chance for repeal.
The Demise of the Poll Tax
Immediately after World War II (1939–1945), reformers within the party and wartime governor Colgate Whitehead Darden proposed to repeal the poll tax as an embarrassing and indefensible barrier to democracy in the state. Even though the General Assembly reluctantly proposed a constitutional amendment to abolish the poll tax, the party’s leadership rallied behind the poll tax, and the amendment was defeated in the November 1949 ratification referendum.
In November 1963, Evelyn Thomas Butts, a civil rights activist from Norfolk, filed suit in federal court to have the poll tax declared unconstitutional as an undue financial burden on the franchise that violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and in March 1964, Annie E. Harper and three other people from Fairfax County filed another federal suit against the poll tax. Harper’s appeal from an adverse ruling of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reached the U.S. Supreme Court before Butts’s appeal, and the resulting combined cases were decided in March 1966 as Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections. The Supreme Court declared the poll tax unconstitutional. In the meantime, the 1964 ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed the imposition of a poll tax as a requirement for voting in federal elections, and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 made the imposition of the poll tax as a prerequisite for voting a violation of federal law. Those steps in the elimination of the poll tax as a prerequisite for voting all arose from outside the political process in Virginia—a process that had made it virtually impossible for disfranchised people to attain their political objectives, even the right to vote. The Virginia Constitution of 1970 omitted authorization of the General Assembly to make payment of a poll tax a prerequisite for voting.