By Robert L. Harrison
As surprising as this might seem today, the State of California imposed an annual poll tax for nearly one hundred years. From 1850, the first year of statehood until 1946, excluding the period 1914 to 1924, a poll tax existed in one form or another. The poll tax is popularly associated with racial restrictions on suffrage in the former Confederate States of America. Yet poll taxes were also in place in several northern states including five in New England and four in the Midwest.
While most often thought of as a way to restrict voting, the poll tax actually expanded suffrage in the colonial era. In early America only men with property could vote. The payment of the poll tax made it possible for virtually every man to have a vote. The four states with a poll tax in the early 19th century enjoyed the broadest suffrage anywhere in the world at that time. Following the Civil War, payment of a poll tax was required to vote in all of the eleven former Confederate states. The tax was an effective device to severely restrict voting by black and poor white southerners.
The poll tax was repealed in some southern states through the first half of the 20th century. North Carolina acted first in 1920 followed by Louisiana in 1934, Florida in 1937 and Georgia in 1945. The remaining former Confederate states ended the poll tax in the 1950s and 1960s with last four acting in 1966.
The House of Representatives passed legislation repealing the tax five times during the 1940s but southern filibusters stymied Senate action. The poll tax in national elections was finally abolished when Congress approved the 24th Amendment to the Constitution in 1962 and it was ratified by the states in 1964. The Amendment was confirmed and enhanced two years later when the Supreme Court ruled that all poll taxes violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The first California poll tax began with laws passed in 1850 under the State’s initial Constitution. In December 1849 Governor Peter H. Burnett delivered the Governor’s First Annual Message to the Legislature. The Governor’s message noted:
“The law protects every man in his person and property. For the protection it gives his person he ought to pay a capitation or poll tax; and for the protection it gives his property, he ought of right to pay a tax, in proportion to its amount and value.”
The rate of the initial Poll Tax was five dollars (about $264 in 2021 dollars).
Opposition to the taxes was expressed in a letters to the Daily Alta California. An example from the Alta’s December 6, 1855 edition asserted: “In the first place the tax is too high, and in the next place there is not more than two-thirds of it collected.” The letter’s author further suggested: “If the law was so framed as to make every man, who was entitled to vote, pay his poll tax at the time he voted, you would find a vast difference in the poll tax receipts….even at one dollar.”
In 1879 the State Constitution was amended to set the state poll tax at two dollars (about $50 in 2021 dollars) and direct the revenue collected to the State School Fund. The counties were authorized to establish a local poll tax and use the revenues for other purposes. The most common use of the poll tax in Marin County was to boost the county road fund. In the Civil War era a Military Poll Tax was also collected. A Marin Road Poll Tax was imposed most years from the 1860s until 1914.
In the January 6, 1876 editorial the Marin Journal dubbed the Road Poll Tax as too high. The tax rate was set at four dollars (about $96 in 2021 dollars) with the option of performing two days labor in lieu of payment. As a result revenue declined because many chose the road work option rather than pay the tax. By 1882 the volunteer San Rafael Hook, Ladder and Hose Co., №1 was on the verge of disbanding because firemen were required to pay the poll tax as well as contributing their time and finances to the organization. In the end the fire company survived when the Assessor decided not to collect either state or local poll taxes from the firemen.
In its July 6, 1888 edition the Sausalito News noted the Marin County Road Poll Tax had been reduced to two dollars (about $55 in 2021 dollars). The editor described the tax as a hardship for those working in hotels and boarding houses “to have to pay perhaps one day’s wages to maintain the County roads.” In addition, the two dollar State Poll Tax continued to be collected to maintain the public school system.
All California poll taxes were abolished in 1914 by a successful ballot initiative worded: “No poll or head tax shall be levied or collected in the State of California.” Marin County voted for the end all poll taxes by a margin of 53.7% yes to 46.3% no (3,876 to 3,342). To offset the loss of revenue to the road fund the Board of Supervisors chose to raise the property tax rate. By 1920 the problem of revenue decline prompted the legislature to amend the constitution to restore a poll tax restricted to alien male inhabitants. The Poll Tax rate was to be $10.00 ($130 in 2021 dollars) but in 1921 the law was declared invalid by the California Supreme Court.
However, in 1924 a proposition to re-establish an “educational” poll tax in support of the state school fund passed in a statewide vote by a narrow margin: 50.8% yes to 49.2% no. Proposition 13 of that year provided “for levy and collection of an annual educational poll tax of not less than five dollars (about $75 in 2021 dollars) on every male inhabitant of this state over twenty-one and under fifty years of age.” Excluded from the tax were veterans and persons paying property taxes of five dollars or more. The 8,178 voting in Marin County opposed the educational poll tax by a margin nearly identical but contrary to the statewide result: 49.3% yes to 50.7% no.
Following the 1924 referendum a local poll tax was never again collected in Marin County. On November 5, 1946 the legislature repealed all provisions of law providing for the imposition of poll taxes thus ending the California Poll Tax.