Backroads

Texas’ African-Americans gained more prominence and power in voting booths, thanks to such leaders as Barbara Jordan (1936–1996) of Houston. Opening up her law practice in 1960, she became involved in politics by registering black voters and reminding constituents to pay poll taxes so they could have voices in elections. This is a 1962 reminder card she distributed to potential voters.

Back then: One man. One vote. One dollar.

Nowadays: One voter. One ballot. One photo identification.

Early voting for the mid-term elections begins Monday and ends Nov. 2, just ahead of Election Day, Nov. 6.

Up until the mid-1960s, Texans paid to vote.

Finally outlawed 50 years ago, the Texas poll tax died after a strenuous, century-long fight.

Ostensibly established as a way to pay for public schools after the War Between the States, the poll tax had the more sinister result of pushing away the poor, minorities, women and other “undesirables” from ballot boxes. Despite protests, Texas’ poll tax persisted until the mid-20th century.

Following Reconstruction, Texas’ white majority tried to keep minorities from exercising their rights – the most important being voting. So, Texas lawmakers mandated fees, at first designed to tax merely living in the state. Other Southern states also passed similar measures.

Being poor was no excuse. Even non-citizens and immigrants were required to pay poll taxes if they had lived in the county during the previous year. Whether a person was eligible to vote or whether he wanted to vote was immaterial; the tax had to be paid.

Men ages 21 and older were generally qualified to vote in Texas if they met residence requirements, paid poll taxes and were free from certain disqualifications relating to mental condition, “pauperism,” criminal convictions or serving with the military.

A Bell County tax collector in 1899 announced to the Temple Times that he had successfully collected $600 in back taxes and had employed “a large force of Negroes” on road paving projects to pay for their delinquent poll taxes.

The tax collector reiterated the law entitled him to conscript workers: “Every insolvent poll taxpayer of Bell County who shall fail or refuse to pay his poll tax…shall be compelled to pay such tax by working on the public county roads for three full days.”

Workers’ “paychecks” were poll tax receipts. The tax collector never mentioned whether he also forced delinquent white workers into road work.

In 1902, the law was amended to require a poll tax as a prerequisite to voting. It also exempted men over age 60. The tax had to be paid at the Bell County Courthouse to earn the privilege to vote in the coming year’s elections. A voter had to show his receipt in each election, which sometimes caused serious problems.

For example, Temple barber John Marandy Hamby (1878-1938) lost his business receipt book that contained his poll tax receipt for the year 1908. He bought a classified ad in the Temple Daily Telegram, offering a substantial reward for its return.

Each Bell County voter was levied $1.75 to register – about $50 in today’s dollars. That same year, the Belton Democrat reported on a young man who had only enough money to pay either his poll tax or buy a marriage license and that he “was up against a hard proposition as to which he would take.”

The Telegram in 1908 carefully explained how the money was spent: $1 went to the state school fund; 50 cents to the state’s general revenue; and 25 cents to the county.

Poll taxes were intended to pay for schools and other public improvements as well as assuring only the “truly worthy” could vote. In reality, the tax discouraged poor whites as well as blacks and Hispanics from voting.

Complicating African-Americans’ access to the voting booths, party rules and state laws after 1923 barred blacks from the Democratic primary, keeping all blacks (and only blacks) out of elections that generally determined who would hold office. These were called “white primaries.”

To further tighten the party’s grip, each voter was supposed to subscribe to a “loyalty pledge,” printed at the top of the primary ballot. By signing it, he agreed to support all candidates nominated in the party primary. Thus, he had a moral obligation to support the nominee, further assuring that one party would dominate.

After Texas women earned the right to vote in 1918 in state and local elections, they, too, were required to pay. Several men complained to the Telegram that women’s voting put undue financial burden on households. Women’s groups such as the state’s League of Women Voters beginning in 1919 urged women to pay poll taxes and printed “Know Your County” booklets.

The Telegram added that payment “is not optional or dependent upon the intentions with respect to voting, but that it is a legal obligation fixed by the laws of the state.” Residents also had to pay additional taxes on their property.

For nearly five decades, poll taxes continued to fill government coffers. In 1949, a general registration law was enacted to become effective if the poll tax was repealed, but it was not. By 1963, lawmakers introduced minor changes in election procedures, but the poll tax persisted.

The next year, Congress passed the 24th Constitutional Amendment, prohibiting poll taxes in federal elections. Holdouts were former Confederate states — Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Virginia.

Bell County voters by that November had had enough. In a statewide election, voters nixed the poll tax by 2 to 1; so did Bell’s voters. The 1964 election was the first where no poll tax was required in federal elections, although the tax survived locally.

A 1966 Legislative resolution ended poll taxes, but the poll tax provisions still lingered on the books.

Finally in 2009, the Texas Legislature finally ratified the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Texas poll tax was officially dead.