About a week ago, my mom told me that my grandma found two poll-tax receipts from the 1960s in an old wallet and wanted me to have them. Remembering from 7th-grade quiz bowl that the 24th Amendment “prohibited poll taxes,” I asked my mom whether the receipts indicated a payment date. When she told me that one of the receipts was from June 4, 1964–over four months after the 24th Amendment was ratified by enough states legislatures to make it the law of the land–I thought I’d stumbled onto a real gem. (See top photo below)
Then I read the 24th Amendment. Section 1 says that neither states nor the federal government can deny U.S. citizens the right to vote for federal officials (Congressmen, U.S. Senators, presidents, and vice presidents) because of failure to pay any kind of tax. Even though my grandma paid a poll tax after the 24th Amendment was ratified, then, Arkansas wasn’t obviously violating any provision of the Constitution by charging her $1 to vote in statewide and local elections (and it’s giving Arkansas the benefit of the doubt to assume that’s what it was doing).
But look closely at the red text at the bottom of the 1964 receipt. Or since it’s probably too small to read, let me quote it to you: “If paid on or before October 1, 1964, will entitle the taxpayer, if otherwise qualified, to vote at any election held in this State between October 2, 1964, and October 1, 1965, inclusive.” There’s something very fishy about this. The contest between LBJ and Barry Goldwater culminated on November 3, 1964, and Arkansans, of course, expressed a presidential preference “in this State.” This receipt fails to mention that otherwise qualified voters needn’t pay a poll tax to “entitle” them to vote for federal officials in the fall of 1964, which had previously been true for … their entire lives. I seriously doubt that slates for federal and state/local officials were disaggregated so non-(poll)taxpayers could vote for the former; if ballots indeed contained the names of federal and state/local candidates, I doubt many voters knew that the 24th Amendment permitted them to turn in incomplete ballots. In other words, this apparently “constitutional” poll tax likely deterred many “otherwise qualified” Arkansans from voting.
The Supreme Court would soon determine that this sort of tax was, in fact, unconstitutional. A Virginia poll tax was struck down as a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections (1966). For a 6-3 Court, Justice Douglas concluded that “wealth or fee paying has, in our view, no relation to voting qualifications; the right to vote is too precious, too fundamental to be so burdened or conditioned.” Douglas’ logic applies fully to federal elections as well; in tandem with the doctrine of reverse incorporation, Harper renders the 24th Amendment superfluous. But I don’t think an argument from constitutional redundancy can be used to criticize the Warren Court’s decision in Harper, even though the 24th Amendment postdates the doctrine of reverse incorporation.
That argument would go like this. The 14th Amendment became law in 1868, the 24th in 1964. Harper says that the Equal Protection Clause accomplishes something (the only thing) the 24th Amendment purports to accomplish. The Constitution is exceptionally difficult to amend, and the nation wouldn’t have wasted its time on an unnecessary amendment. Therefore, the 24th Amendment (as all amendments do) changed the Constitution in some way. How did it change the Constitution? By prohibiting the denial of suffrage for federal officials for the failure to pay any kind of tax. By deduction, the Equal Protection Clause did not contemplate such a prohibition. Harper was incorrectly decided.
This argument denies that changed societal circumstances can furnish the Equal Protection Clause’s open-ended language new applications not contemplated by prior generations, a proposition the Court made famous in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). It also fails to take into account the Supreme Court’s decision in Breedlove v. Suttles (1937), which ruled that states are constrained only by the 15th and 19th Amendments when conditioning their citizens’ suffrage. Whether or not the 24th Amendment’s proponents personally thought the Equal Protection Clause relevant in this calculation, the Court had ruled firmly in the negative. To invoke the 14th Amendment in a crusade against the poll tax would have been to deny the authority of a relatively recent precedent. It’s entirely plausible that one purpose of the 24th Amendment was to partially overturn a decision that some of the adopters/ratifiers believed to be erroneous. So just as the Blaine Amendment doesn’t prove that the Representatives of 1875 didn’t themselves understand the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment to apply Bill of Rights guarantees to the states (given Slaughterhouse and Cruikshank), the adoption of the 24th Amendment may have been intended to exorcise an improper reading of the constitutional text. If so, it’s not surprising that the Court reversed itself in Harper.