The term “poll tax” is used in two senses. In most of the world, it is a flat tax levied on every citizen of a region for the purpose of raising money for the government. In the United States, the term is used specifically to refer to a sum of money that people were required to pay in order to go to the polls to vote. Both reference “poll” as in “to count,” a word derived from “poll” in the sense of “human head.” The tax in the second sense was abolished in 1964 under the 24th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The history of the poll tax in the first sense is ancient, as is the history of opposition to it. These taxes were used in many European nations and European colonies (including America) to raise money to pay for government programs. Sometimes, the citizens fought back, as in the Peasant's Revolt of 1381 in England, which was triggered by such a tax. An attempt to reinstate the poll tax in 1990 in Britain also led to rioting.
Proponents of this tax argue that it ensures that everyone bears the same tax burden, whereas scaled taxes provide a disincentive to make more money. Opponents point out that these taxes place an unreasonable burden on low-income individuals, because they cannot afford the flat fee as easily as wealthy people can. Many nations use a system of taxation based on income, rather than a poll tax, reflecting the idea that people should pay according to their abilities, rather than being obliged to pay a set amount.
In the second sense, the poll tax was deliberately designed to disenfranchise low income voters in the United States, particularly black voters. Upon arriving at the polls, voters would be obliged to pay a tax in order to receive their ballots, and if they couldn't afford the fee, they were turned away. Many people chafed against this, arguing that it violated the basic principle of equality that was supposed to be the cornerstone of American life.
In 1964, Congress agreed, and the 24th Amendment was passed to abolish the poll tax, allowing many people to vote for the first time. Other measures were used to intimidate or pressure minority voters in the United States, however.