On this day fifty years ago, the United States Supreme Court issued a monumental ruling that struck down the poll tax, a barrier that had prevented millions of poor African-American voters, as well as poor white voters, from casting their ballots. In Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, the case brought by Virginia voters, the Court held that “a State violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment whenever it makes the affluence of the voter or payment of any fee an electoral standard. Voter qualifications have no relation to wealth…” For the first time, the Supreme Court recognized that wealth discrimination in the political process is prohibited under the US Constitution. (Audio of Oral Arguments)
Fifty years later, we face a new wealth barrier in our elections. In an op-ed published today in Common Dreams, Free Speech For People’s Co-Founder and President John Bonifaz writes of “the exclusionary campaign finance system which allows big money interests to dominate our politics and drown out the voices of ordinary citizens.” He explains: “Like the poll tax of the past, this barrier – the wealth primary – blocks millions of voters from participating in the political process on an equal basis. And, as with the poll tax history, the abolition of this wealth barrier to our democracy will require a reversal of prior Supreme Court rulings.”
The momentum of the Civil Rights Movement led to the enactment in 1964 of the 24th Amendment to the US Constitution forever banning poll taxes in federal elections, but four Southern states held onto to the poll tax for their state elections — including Virginia. While the majority of Supreme Court justices ruled in Harper that the poll tax violated the Equal Protection Clause, three justices dissented: Justices Hugo Black, John Marshall Harlan II, and Potter Stewart.
In his dissent from the majority ruling in Harper, Justice Harlan II, joined by Justice Stewart, repeated an entrenched claim for justifying the poll tax:
[I]t is certainly a rational argument that payment of some minimal poll tax promotes civic responsibility, weeding out those who do not care enough about public affairs to pay $1.50 or thereabouts a year for the exercise of the franchise. It is also arguable, indeed it was probably accepted as sound political theory by a large percentage of Americans through most of our history, that people with some property have a deeper stake in community affairs, and are consequently more responsible, more educated, more knowledgeable, more worthy of confidence, than those without means, and that the community and Nation would be better managed if the franchise were restricted to such citizens.
The Harper ruling overturned two prior Supreme Court rulings (in 1937 and in 1951) that had upheld the poll tax, applying arguments like those made by Justice Harlan II in his dissent. Bonifaz says that the poll tax history is critical for seeing that change is possible with our current pay-to-play political system dominated by big money interests.
For four decades, the Supreme Court has refused to recognize that this system violates the basic promise of political equality for all. Since the time of its 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, the Court has sanctioned today’s regime of unlimited campaign spending in our elections on the claim that money equals speech and that those with large sums of money have a First Amendment right to spend it in our political process. And, in Citizens United v FEC, the Court went even further, finding that corporations are people with the political speech rights to spend their general treasury funds in our elections. With Citizens United, artificial creatures of government have joined the wealthiest few of our nation in controlling an exclusionary process which determines who shall govern in America.
But, as happened with the poll tax, the tide is turning on the wealth primary barrier. Since the Citizens United ruling, a growing movement has emerged across the country calling for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution to get big money out of our politics and to reclaim our democracy. And, now with the current vacancy on the Supreme Court, we face the potential for a dramatic shift in the Court’s jurisprudence on campaign finance, where political equality principles may now be able to prevail.
On today’s anniversary, the story of the poll tax “reminds us that a sustained people’s movement combined with continued pressure in the courts can eradicate an entrenched and anti-democratic system. The wealth primary barrier may stand today. But, it will not stand forever.”
To read the full article from John Bonifaz on Common Dreams, click here.