What Is A “Poll Tax” And Why Is It In The News?

The term “poll tax” has been in the news recently.

And while I’ve heard the term many times, I had only a vague idea of what it was.

Research time.

“Poll,” which – appropriately – rhymes with “stole” – appears to be an old English word that meant “head.”  If you wanted to know how many people lived in your town, you did a “poll” count, or head count.

In the American colonies, governments implemented a “poll tax” by taking a head count, and charging a fixed sum on every liable individual.  In other words, if you were alive, you were taxed for it, and the poll tax became a major source of government revenue.

poll tax_1900

Poll taxes fell out of favor in some states as populations grew, settled land, land values grew, and governments realized they’d make more money charging a property tax.

But poll taxes still hung around, sometimes in the form of hunting or fishing license fees and later, driver license fees.  And we still pay those fees; they just go by a different name.

If you didn’t like it, the various local governments simply shrugged and said, “Hunting and fishing and driving are optional.  Just – don’t pay it, and don’t hunt or fish or drive.”

Where it got ugly was in locations in which, if you wanted to vote, you paid a poll tax.

Again, voting?  Optional.  Can’t afford the poll tax?  Then don’t vote.

24thamendment01 largerAfter losing the Civil War (1861-1865), former Confederate states set up poll taxes of $1 or $2 per year between 1889 and 1966 as a prerequisite to voting.  This Jim Crow-era tool was used to disenfranchise those who couldn’t pay – first, African Americans and then, poor white Americans.

The end of the voting poll tax was the 24th Amendment, which passed in 1964.

But we still use the word “poll” in several different ways:

  • A record of the number of votes cast in an election: “Apathy might cause the poll to be unduly low.”
  • The places where votes are cast in an election: “The polls have only just closed.”
  • To take a sampling of attitudes or opinions: “The latest Gallup poll indicates…

Which brings us current and using “poll” in news headlines.

First, Florida voters passed Amendment 4 in November 2018:

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Which led to headlines like this:

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Which has now led to headlines like this:

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Let’s start with:

Why are felons deprived of their right to vote?

Depriving someone of their right to vote when they’ve been convicted of a serious crime is a tradition that goes back to ancient Greek and Roman times, transitioned to Europe in the Middle Ages, and survives right up to our current day.

It was a form of “civil death,” the reasoning being that people who commit what we now call “felonies” have “broken” the social contract, thereby giving up their right to participate in a civil society.

poll tax_1918

As Europeans emigrated to the American colonies, they brought the tradition with them, and as the colonies became states, they began to formalize “civil death.”  In 1792 – nine years after the end of the American Revolution – Kentucky became the first state to establish criminal disenfranchisement when it ratified its constitution, which included this language:

“Laws shall be made to exclude from…suffrage those who thereafter be convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

In one form or another, other states did likewise.

Then, over the last few decades, the trend turned toward ending – in various degrees – felony disenfranchisement.  It’s a state-by-state policy choice, which eventually created a morass of rules that look like this:

map (2)

The Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan law and public policy institute, put it this way:

“Navigating this patchwork of state laws can be exceedingly difficult, especially because election officials often misunderstand their own states’ laws.”

Now let’s talk about former felons in Florida.

In November 2018 the people of Florida approved Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to former felons who had served their sentence, excluding those convicted of murder and sex felonies.

poll tax_1933

The amendment passed by a 30-point margin – 64% of voters – which made the will of the people of Florida very clear.

In June 2019 the Florida legislature passed, and Governor DeSantis signed, SB7066, which requires people who are eligible to vote under Amendment 4 to complete “all terms of sentence” before they can vote.

The legislature and governor’s SB7066 defined “all terms of sentence” as including payment of all restitution, fines, fees, or outstanding costs associated with the conviction.

It’s estimated Amendment 4 would affect 1.4 million felons.  Reports show that about 500,000 of them have unpaid fees or fines that could prevent them from registering to vote, due to the amended amendment.

poll tax_1945

Just hours after DeSantis signed the bill, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida, the Brennan Center for Justice, and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a federal lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims that SB7066 creates two classes of returning citizens:  a group wealthy enough to afford their voting rights, and another group who cannot afford to vote.

Other civil rights groups suggest that SB7066 violates the prohibition against poll taxes enshrined in the 24th Amendment – the amendment that ended the pay-to-vote system.

And many people point out that those 64% of Florida voters passed Amendment 4, which never made any mention of court fines, fees or restitution.

poll tax_1960

The voters of Florida didn’t ask for court fines, fees or restitution, but the Florida legislature and governor did.

Why did the legislature and governor do this?

Just doing our jobs, says Republican State Senator Jeff Brandes:

“I think via this legislation, we are doing our constitutional obligation to define those undefined terms in the amendment.”

ET2015-20036
Anti-poll tax button, 1940s.

The ACLU and many others disagree:

“The right to vote should not come with a price tag.  Florida’s new law is un-American and unconstitutional.”

And many see it as blatant racism, given the disproportionate number of African Americans in prison.

Amendment 4 could have enfranchised thousands of African Americans, who tend to vote Democrat.

Florida has a Republican governor and a Republican majority in its legislature.

It’s a critical “swing” state in presidential elections.

So – “just doing their job,” or implementing a poll tax?

“Unamerican,” or sadly, very American, considering today’s bipolar politics?

All those 1.4 million former felons can do…

Is wait:

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