It’s humbling, if not downright embarrassing, how much I never knew. Almost as embarrassing as some of the Amendments we actually had to write, in the 20th century, no less. At one time, in some states, Americans had to pay to vote. What?
It was called the poll tax, and it originated in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, as a means of countering the gains that African Americans had made under the law, beginning with emancipation from slavery and ending in the right for all men, of any color, to vote. Charging a fee for voting was overtly engineered to keep the newest eligible voters from exercising their right, and it remained lawful to do so for decades, until the ratification of the 24th Amendment in 1964:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.
That was Section 1 of the Amendment. Section 2 was the usual “and if we have to write more laws to ensure that, we will” language. We just can’t be trusted, can we?
Think about the time scales here. The United States became a nation in 1776, with a fully ratified Constitution in 1989. While the Declaration of Independence opened with the famous assertion that “all men are created equal” (a statement already focused on just one half of the population), it took 89 years to Constitutionally decree the end of American slavery, and another five years to grant voting rights to men of all races. It only took 20 years after that for some states to being charging a fee to vote, but it took 74 years for us to say as a nation that was no longer acceptable, via the 24th Amendment. And then it took another two years for the Supreme Court to rule that poll taxes were unconstitutional at all levels of government (by citing the 14th Amendment; the 24th Amendment only applies to federal elections). And I haven’t even talked about gender yet… that’s another Amendment, and a future post. For those of you scoring at home, that’s a total of 190 years to get it all straightened out.
And of course, it’s fairly easy to construct an argument that we’re not really done yet. It didn’t take long after the 1960’s for laws to change regarding the influence money can have on election campaigns – which may have more than canceled out the gains of the 14th Amendment and others like it. We’re also gaming the system with redistricting and continual changes to the state laws surrounding elections. It may never truly end; if there is one thing about which humans have been consistent throughout recorded history, it is the sheer terror of losing power once it’s been gained. People with the means will pay hefty prices to avoid that, but in the end we are all stuck with the bill.