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Twenty-fourth Amendment

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noun
an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1964, forbidding the use of the poll tax as a requirement for voting in national or U.S. Congressional elections.
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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2021

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What is the Twenty-fourth Amendment?

The Twenty-fourth Amendment is an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that forbids using payment of a poll tax as a requirement for voting in national or Congressional elections.

The Constitution of the United States is the document that serves as the  fundamental law of the country. An amendment is a change to something. An amendment to the Constitution is any text added to the original document since its ratification in 1788. The Constitution has been amended 27 times in American history.

The Twenty-fourth Amendment has two sections.

The first section outlaws requiring a voter to pay a poll tax in order to vote in a national election or an election for a member of Congress.

The second section gives Congress the power to enforce the amendment with laws.

The wording of the Twenty-fourth Amendment means that it only forbids poll taxes at the federal level, allowing state and local poll taxes. However, within two years of the amendment being ratified, the Supreme Court ruled state and local poll taxes unconstitutional as well in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections. Interestingly, the Court cited the Fourteenth Amendment and not the Twenty-fourth Amendment in its ruling.

In any event, all poll taxes are now illegal in the United States. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that indirect expenses that serve the same purpose as poll taxes, such as requiring a voter to obtain government paperwork or requiring a convicted felon to settle their debt before voting, are constitutional. It remains to be seen whether the Court will ever consider future “indirect taxes” to violate the Twenty-fourth Amendment.

Why is Twenty-fourth Amendment important?

Although modern Americans may think poll taxes sound like an undemocratic idea, such taxes have been legal for most of American history. The Constitution leaves it up to the states to decide voter qualifications. At first, most states only allowed property owners to vote. Later, poll taxes were used to decide who could vote. The theory was that all taxpayers, not just landowners, would be invested in the electoral process and would be knowledgeable of the issues and candidates.

By the mid-1800s, most states had done away with poll taxes and allowed all white men to vote. However, after the Fifteenth Amendment was passed, which forbids denying the right to vote based on race, poll taxes came back as an effective way to prevent Black men (and poor white men) from voting. For much of the rest of American history, poll taxes would be used alongside things like literacy tests to prevent Black people from voting and to support the racist system of Jim Crow.

By the 1960s only five states still enforced poll taxes—Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia. Despite this, President John F. Kennedy supported getting rid of all poll taxes as part of his push for civil rights. Thinking that any normal legislation would be impossible because the Constitution guarantees states the right to set voter qualifications, Congress resolved that only a Constitutional amendment could outlaw poll taxes.

Congress managed to narrowly pass the proposal for the Twenty-fourth Amendment on August 27, 1962. Many feared the amendment wouldn’t go far enough to protect the voting rights of Blacks, because the amendment only applied to federal elections. However, this limitation was deemed necessary in order to convince enough states to ratify it. The Twenty-fourth Amendment was indeed successfully ratified by the states on January 23, 1964.

Did you know … ?

Although the Twenty-fourth Amendment found little support in the South, only one state, Mississippi, actually voted to reject it.

What are real-life examples of Twenty-fourth Amendment?

Pictured above is a receipt given to Rosa Parks after paying a poll tax in 1956. The Twenty-fourth Amendment made poll taxes illegal in federal elections.

Today, the Twenty-fourth Amendment is uncontroversial. It is often cited when people accuse modern groups or politicians of voter suppression.

What other words are related to Twenty-fourth Amendment?

Quiz yourself!

True or False?

The Twenty-fourth Amendment forbids the use of poll taxes for all elections.

How to use Twenty-fourth Amendment in a sentence

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