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What is a Poll Tax?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 24, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By sneakers41 — On Jan 02, 2011

Sunshine31-I understand that they wanted to raise money for the government, but attaching it to the right to vote is really unfair because that is a universal right that American citizen’s share.

I know that the British poll tax was similar to that of the Untied States. Although the fee paid was a flat percentage, everyone had to pay that percentage.

This is unfair to the poor people because although everyone pays the same percentage it does not impact people the same way. A wealthy person, for example, that has to pay a 10% fee will not impact him or her because they have excess disposable income.

A poor person has no disposable income and therefore this fine will impact his or her livelihood. They may actually have to make choices regarding buying food and voting. These people tend to live paycheck to paycheck with little savings. I am glad that we do not have poll taxes.

By sunshine31 — On Jan 01, 2011

The poll tax amendment was the 24th amendment to the constitution. It really abolished the poll tax because it was unfair to poor people.

In addition, it was a measure used to keep freed slaves from voting. Actually there was a poll tax and a literacy test that disqualified African Americans from voting.

The literacy test given to white Americans was much easier than that given to African Americans causing them to be disqualified from voting. I don’t think that any American citizens should be disenfranchised like that.

People have the right to pick representatives for their elected government. This is what a free democracy does and why people from all over the world want to migrate to the United States. Cubans, for example, risk their lives everyday to escape the injustices of totalitarian rule and hope to reach US soil where they will be granted automatic asylum.

This illustrates how important the right to vote is. This is why having no poll tax is really the way it should have been. The history of the poll tax is really another sad period of our American history.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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