Barriers to Voting: Poll Taxes

Image credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Carr Family

Download this lesson plan, including handouts, in PDF format.

Overview

Topic: Civil Rights; Civic Education and Engagement; Persuasive Writing and Speaking

Grade Level: 8-12

Subject Area: US History; Civics and US Government

Time Required: 1-2 hours

Goals/Rationale: In this lesson, students consider the impact of the poll tax as a barrier to voting by examining four primary sources.

Essential Question: What barriers to voting have citizens confronted throughout American history?

Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • discuss how poll taxes created an impediment to voting.
  • analyze primary sources relating to poll taxes.
  • do a close reading of a primary source with cursive writing.
  • discuss whether voting is a right or a privilege.
  • describe the impact of current local, state and federal laws that might limit voter participation and make an argument either for or against those limitations.

Preparation

Historical Background

The framers of the US Constitution left voter qualifications, for the most part, to individual states. In the late 18th century, many states limited voting to property owners. Some of these states moved from property ownership to a poll tax requirement for voting. By the mid-19th century, however, most states did not limit voting by property ownership or poll taxes. After the ratification of the 15th Amendment, in an attempt to limit Black voter registration and turnout, many states re-established poll taxes. The combination of poll taxes, literacy tests, White primaries (permitting only Whites to vote in primary elections), intimidation, violence, and disqualification of people convicted of felonies succeeded in reducing Black voter participation.

Though the re-establishment of poll taxes was meant to disenfranchise Black voters, they also affected participation of all people with limited means. A poll tax of $2 in 1962 would convert to approximately $17 in 2020 dollars. If two heads of a household were to vote, that would mean the household would have to pay $34 in current dollars. This would be a major burden for people with low incomes.

By 1962, only five states continued to require poll taxes: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia. In his 1962 State of the Union Address, President Kennedy put the issue on the national agenda when he called for the elimination of poll taxes and literacy tests, stating that voting rights “should no longer be denied through such arbitrary devices on a local level.” The proposal to ban literacy tests did not make it past a Senate filibuster, but after debating the substance of the proposal to end the poll tax and whether or not the tax should be eliminated by a Constitutional amendment, Congress passed the 24th Amendment, abolishing poll taxes in federal elections on August 27, 1962. Kennedy then urged governors and legislators to move ahead with ratification. The Amendment was ratified after his death, on January 23, 1964. 

However, even with the passage of the 24th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices such as literacy tests, African Americans experienced impediments to voting. In January 1966, civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer was killed after publicly offering to help African Americans in his hometown in Mississippi pay their poll taxes, legal in state and local elections, at his store. Mr. Dahmer had been working to secure African Americans’ voting rights for many years, including his role as a witness in the 1961 voting rights case United States v. Theron Lynd.

On March 24, 1966, the Supreme Court ruled in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections that poll taxes could not be collected in any election, including state and local elections, since they violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Materials (available in downloadable PDF)

Procedure

1. Have students read for homework “Barriers to Voting: Poll Taxes” and answer the reading comprehension questions.

2. As an ice breaker for the entire class, ask students if they think voting is a right or a privilege for US citizens. What would it mean to citizens if voting is a right? What would it mean to citizens if voting is a privilege? Ask them to consider whether or not they believe people convicted of felonies should be allowed to vote or whether or not the voting age should be lowered to 17.

3. Provide students with the poll tax receipt from Mr. Carr with these guiding questions:

     a. What information is being collected by the State of Texas on this form? (date, name, address, sex, race, age, occupation, number of years in residence, whether voter was born in the US or naturalized, place of birth, who paid, precinct, who received payment)

     b. How much did Mr. Carr pay to vote? Have students use the Internet to translate what that would mean in current dollars. ($1.50 is approximately $14.50 in 2020 dollars.)

     c. What do you know about Mr. Carr from this receipt? (He was a 34-year-old African American male railroad worker who lived in the same county and city in Texas his whole life. He paid $1.50 on January 31, 1955 in order to vote.)

4. Provide students with a transcript excerpt from a November 30, 2015 oral history with Ellie Dahmer, widow of Vernon Dahmer, and have them watch the video from 35:20 to 39:03.

Guiding questions:

     a. When Mrs. Dahmer said that African Americans would be more comfortable paying their poll tax at her husband’s store than “going into Hattiesburg,” what do you think she meant? (Answers might include: At that time in Mississippi, African Americans were intimidated when they tried to vote. Paying the poll tax at an African American-owned store with an African American store clerk whom they might know would make that step less intimidating.)

     b. What does Mrs. Dahmer say that shows she and her husband understood the risks of promoting voting among African Americans? (She and her husband had been threatened with physical violence for a while and had been preparing themselves should their home be attacked. Those threats escalated when Mr. Dahmer spoke about the poll tax on the radio.)

     c. Mrs. Dahmer shows a copy of the poll tax receipts that she paid for her son Harold and herself on January 25, 1966. What is significant about when she paid the tax? What are some reasons she might have saved a copy of these receipts for so many years? (Mr. Dahmer was killed 1/10/1966, so she paid the poll tax 15 days after his death—a death caused by promoting voting among African Americans. Mrs. Dahmer paid the poll tax for herself and her son to vote. This appears to have been a very brave act, and the symbol of that act—the poll tax receipts—she may have deemed worthy of keeping.)

5. Provide students with the letter from Mrs. Ciaccio to President Kennedy and the response from Ralph Dungan with these guiding questions:

     a. At what age did Mrs. Ciaccio become eligible to vote? (age 21)

    Additional points for research and discussion: When did the minimum voting age change in the US? (1971What was happening in the world at the time the 26thAmendment was ratified? (Vietnam War) Why do you think the voting age changed at that time? Research the history of the 26th Amendment to provide an answer.

     b. Does Mrs. Ciaccio call voting a right or a privilege? Based on this letter what do you think the word “privilege” means to her? (She calls it a privilege. She mentions that, as a child, when she saw her parents voting she looked forward to reaching the age when she would have the privilege to vote. So, she sees voting as a privilege for Americans who reach the current voting age of 21, but she also sees it as an important act that should be free of charge.)

    Additional point for discussion: Does she use the term “privilege” in the same manner you discussed that word in the icebreaker?

     c. How much does she say she must pay in order to vote in 1962? ($2) What does she believe is the reason she is being charged to vote? (She says she has not found a satisfactory explanation for the poll tax.)

     d. What is her response to needing to pay this tax? (The ability to vote should not be determined by how much money one has.) Do you find her arguments persuasive? If so, why? If not, why not?

     e. What more information would you like to know about Mrs. Ciaccio, having read her letter (Answers might include: Did her husband vote? How much money did her family earn?) As a class, brainstorm sources students could seek to find some of that information.

     f. Why does Ralph Dungan suggest Mrs. Ciaccio discuss with her local officials budgeting information from the state of Texas? (Poll taxes are a state issue and are used by states to pay for their needs. Local officials might be able to explain to her how those tax dollars are spent.)

Assessment

Have students research current local, state and federal laws that might limit voter participation and make an argument either for or against those limitations. For example, students might want to consider Voter ID laws or prohibition of voting for people who had been convicted of felonies, including the demand to pay legal fees first. In their arguments, students should consider whether they view voting as a right or a privilege.

Extension

Have older students research why President Kennedy advocated for the “hard way” in abolishing the poll tax through a Constitutional amendment instead of passing legislation to abolish the tax. 

Connections to Curriculum (Standards)

National History Standards - US History, Era 9: Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)

  • Standard 3: Domestic policies after World War II
  • Standard 4: The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties

Common Core State Standards

  • ELA College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language
  • ELA – Reading Informational Texts, Writing, Speaking and Listening, Language, and Literacy in History/Social Studies for grades 8, 9-10 and 11-12

C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards

  • Discipline 1 - Developing questions and planning inquiries
  • Discipline 2 - Applying disciplinary concepts and tools (History and Civics)
  • Discipline 3 - Evaluating sources and using evidence
  • Discipline 4 - Communicating conclusions and taking informed action

National Council of Teachers of English: Standards 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12

Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework

  • 8.T4 Rights and responsibilities of citizens
  • 8.T5 The Constitution, Amendments, and Supreme Court decisions
  • USII.T4: Defending democracy: the Cold War and civil rights at home
  • USII.T5: United States and globalization
  • GOV.T2:  Purposes, principles, and institutions of government in the United States
  • GOV.T3: Civil rights, human rights, and civil liberties

Massachusetts English Language Arts Framework

  • Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language

Sources

National Constitution Center - The Twenty-Fourth Amendment 
The National Constitution Center provides excellent background information about the 24th Amendment to the Constitution.

Congress Recommends Poll Tax Ban 
This 1962 article from the Congressional Quarterly Almanac provides reporting on congressional actions that led to the passing of the 24th Amendment.

Recalling an Era When the Color of Your Skin Meant You Paid to Vote
This Smithsonian Magazine article provides information about the poll tax, and discusses a 1955 poll tax receipt for Lee Carr.

Vernon Dahmer
This web page, from the Southern Poverty Law Center, provides biographical information about civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer, as does this web page, from the Mississippi Encyclopedia.