Sidelined Sanders; Shielded Schiff? Poll Tax
Good morning. It’s Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. Six years ago, President Obama received the findings of a special commission that examined how to improve voting practices and ballot access in this country. The panel’s report reminded Americans that democracy is not a finished product, but a work in progress -- and that, to retain it, we must keep strengthening it.
A half-century earlier -- 56 years ago today -- the people of the United States took a huge step in that direction by ratifying the 24th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed the dreaded poll tax.
“Today, the United States witnesses the triumph of liberty over restriction,” President Johnson proclaimed at a subsequent White House ceremony. “Today, the people of this land have … reaffirmed the simple but unbreakable theme of this republic: Nothing is so valuable as liberty, and nothing is so necessary to liberty as the freedom to vote without bans or barriers.”
I’ll have more on the poll tax in a moment. First, I’d point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion pieces spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters, columnists, and contributors, including the following:
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Suing California to Produce a State Checkbook. Andrew Andrzejewski explains why his group, Open the Books, is pressing Golden State officials to show how they’re spending $320 billion in taxpayer money.
Soft-on-Crime Liberals Are Ruining America’s Greatest Cities. Bernard Kerik blames Democratic policymakers for allowing violent offenders back on the streets.
New Terrorism in the Wake of Withdrawal. In RealClearDefense, Faith Stewart warns of dire consequences if the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan.
Exxon Isn't the Oil User -- You Are. In RealClearEnergy, Jude Clemente discusses an often ignored fact: CO2 isn't emitted in a socioeconomic vacuum.
Counting the Homeless, Searching for Solutions. In RealClearPolicy, David Lucas emphasizes the importance of the upcoming census tally.
Stephen Schwarzman’s Spectacular “What It Takes.” John Tamny’s reviews the Blackstone Group founder’s new book.
Why Does Tylenol Kill Snakes? RealClearScience editor Ross Pomeroy explores the solution to Guam’s problem with an overpopulation of brown tree snakes.
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Today, the term “poll tax” is used as shorthand for barriers that blocked Southern blacks from voting. It’s true that this was its basic and nefarious purpose. But it was not its only one. The tax also prevented many poor whites from voting. This, too, was part of its original aim -- the idea being that white sharecroppers and former slaves be prevented from finding common purpose at the ballot box.
The poll taxes weren’t usually expensive, typically ranging from $1 to $3 per year, but this could be a significant sum for a tenant farmer, especially since they were often applied retroactively. For instance, if a 45-year-old citizen wanted to vote for the first time, authorities might tell him he was required to pay the tax for every year since he turned 21.
“Do you know I’ve never voted in my life, never been able to exercise my right as a citizen because of the poll tax?” a white Georgian identified as “Mr. Trout” told a Works Progress Administration interviewer named Homer L. Pike.
Voting participation in Florida dropped nearly 70% after the poll tax was enacted in 1889. In the 20th century, a state legislator named Spessard Holland made it his mission to change the law. Holland spearheaded the herculean efforts required to abolish Florida’s poll tax, which was accomplished in 1936.
An all-around athlete at Emory College who went to law school at the University of Florida, Holland was already a junior partner at a prestigious law firm before graduating from law school. He had also been accepted as a Rhodes scholar. Before he could accept that appointment, World War I intervened. Spessard Holland went to Europe, but as a combat soldier in the Army Air Corps, not as a student. After the war, he returned home and entered politics.
He served in the state legislature in Tallahassee, was elected governor, and was then sent by Floridians -- at least those who could vote -- to the U.S. Senate. In Washington, he continued his crusade against the poll tax. Beginning in 1949, he offered a constitutional amendment to abolish it six times. He was so identified with this cause that on Capitol Hill and in the press that the measure to repeal the poll tax was simply known as “the Holland Amendment.”
His seventh effort, in 1959, signaled a shift in the winds. That year, Holland’s amendment attracted 52 co-sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, who predicted passage and ratification by the states. Almost alone among Southern Democrats, Johnson had declined to sign the so-called “Southern Manifesto” drafted in 1954 by Strom Thurmond and Richard Russell as a protest against Brown v. Board of Education. Holland had signed it, and yet he was the driving force against a pernicious practice that had been used to essentially disenfranchise Southern blacks.
By the time the Holland Amendment became the 24th Amendment, Lyndon Baines Johnson was president. Two weeks after ratification, Johnson discussed the poll tax repeal at the White House, delivering some words of caution that reverberate to our time.
“There can be no one too poor to vote,” LBJ said on that winter’s day in 1964. “The only enemy to voting that we face today is indifference. Too many of our citizens treat casually what other people in other lands are ready to die for.”
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics