On Friday, the 11th Circuit overturned a lower court ruling and upheld the Florida legislature’s mandate that former felons pay all fines and fees to have their voting rights restored. So let’s talk about the history of the poll tax. 1/

Because that’s what the Florida law is. One can say it’s constitutional, or not a tax, or that paying fines and fees is part of a person’s “sentence.” 2/
But the law is an obvious attempt to restrict the franchise and limit the impact of the 2018 referendum approved by Floridians to restore voting rights to those who have served felony sentences. 3/
The poll tax has a long history in the United States, a lot of it racist and aimed at controlling poor and Black people, and limiting their political power and influence. 4/
In the colonial era, what were known as “poll taxes” were widespread in North America, and despite the name, they usually had nothing to do with voting (though taxpaying generally was sometimes tied to it). 5/
Poll taxes were mostly a head tax used as a revenue source. But even then, people complained they unfairly burdened the poor, which they did. And even then, they were often racist. 6/
For decades in Virginia, for example, white women didn’t pay it, but free Black women were presumed “workers” and so they got taxed. In North Carolina, all Black people got taxed starting at age 12, but only white men got taxed, starting at age 16. 7/
In South Carolina, white people paid no poll tax at all. But by the late colonial era, free Black people did. The poll tax carried on, especially in the South, after Independence and well into the nineteenth century. 8/
It became less significant as a revenue source in many states relative to the “slave tax” paid by slaveholders. But poorer whites still complained poll taxes were unfair, and in many states, poll tax rates declined for white people, but they increased for free Black people. 9/
Some states purposefully jacked up poll tax rates for free Black people to try to discourage them from moving there. Virginia even charged a poll tax in 1850 on free Black men that was to fund sending free Black people to Liberia! 10/
And of course, Black people couldn’t vote, so they had no say in the matter. 11/
Emancipation and early Reconstruction largely ended poll taxes that explicitly discriminated on the basis of race, and state poll tax rates generally fell. But local governments might still impose their own poll taxes. 12/
Local poll taxes could be more than a month’s wages for workers, and if you didn’t pay them, among the penalties could be forced labor, hired out to private employers or put on a chain gang. You can imagine how that played out. 13/
Enfranchisement and officeholding for Black men brought still more change to the poll tax. It didn’t usually disappear, but it often went uncollected, and what was brought in was often used to pay for public schools. 14/
With the overthrow of Reconstruction, that pattern continued, except that state governments, now run by white “Redeemers,” segregated the poll tax revenue. 15/
To the extent they got collected and paid, poll taxes paid by whites went toward white schools and poll taxes paid by Blacks went toward Black schools. Neither paid for a decent school system, so… 16/
Southern states supplemented white schools with other tax revenue and left Black schools hung out to dry, meaning other taxes paid by Black southerners funded schools for white southerners. 17/
There’s variation by state, county, and locality, of course, and a useful article about all this prehistory is by Brian Sawers in the American Journal of Legal History, from 2017. 18/
And all of it lays the groundwork for what the poll tax became under Jim Crow. Already rooted in centuries of race and class discrimination as a general revenue source, it could be tied to voting rights and turned into a mechanism of disfranchisement. 19/
With the Fifteenth Amendment barring disfranchisement on the basis of race or previous condition of servitude, states looking to keep Black voters off the rolls had to find ostensibly non-racial ways to do it. 20/
The poll tax was perfect. It was already in place in most former Confederate states, it ostensibly applied equally to everyone, it could be combined with other tactics to make sure even most Black people who could pay it would never vote, and. . . 21/
It had the “advantage” of effectively disfranchising masses of poor whites whose voices and power state leaders often wanted silenced anyway. 22/
In 1877, the year after Reconstruction ended, former Confederate states started making voter registration contingent on paying poll taxes. By 1902, every former Confederate state (and some outside of the South) had done so. 23/
Fighting to get rid of the poll tax emerged as a significant civil rights issue by the 1930s. Attempts to outlaw it failed repeatedly in the Supreme Court and at the congressional level thanks mostly to southern opposition. 24/
Still, between the 1920s and the 1950s, half a dozen states abolished the poll tax, often because they realized that the wealthy might pay poll taxes for others and effectively buy their votes. 25/
Ultimately, it would take a constitutional amendment to eliminate the poll tax for federal elections for good. Only two former Confederate states voted for ratification by the time it became part of the Constitution in 1964. 26/
Ironically, Florida was one of them, and it was a Florida Democrat who introduced the amendment in the Senate. Yet today it's Florida showing the nation how to erect financial hurdles for those seeking reinstatement of their right to vote. 27/
Moreover, just as the poll tax could be combined with things like literacy clauses that entailed purposefully byzantine “tests” to bar prospective voters… 28/
The state of Florida today has made as difficult as possible for former felons even to know or figure out how much they owe in court fines and fees in order to pay them. 29/
But there are ways to help. If the courts won’t see injustice for what it is, then working together to pay fees and fines on behalf of those who cannot may be the only way forward. 30/
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition @FLRightsRestore has been fighting the good fight on this issue. If you want to see voting restored as the right it ought to be rather than as a privilege for those able to pay for it… 31/
Consider contributing to the FRRC’s campaign. There are enough other vestiges of Jim Crow still around already without institutionalizing another one. 32/32


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As the national Fourth of July celebration gets hijacked and turned into a campaign event and an ego-stroking parade of military hardware, consider the case of Luther Baldwin from the summer of 1798. 1/
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