In Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether conditioning the right to vote in state elections upon payment of an annual fee, or poll tax, violated the U.S. Constitution, specifically the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court addressed this issue previously in Breedlove v. Suttles (1937), unanimously upholding a Georgia statute generally requiring a poll tax as a prerequisite to voting. However, by 1966 only four states continued to exact a poll tax, and Congress had enacted the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, prohibiting the use of poll taxes in federal elections. In addition, the Court’s interpretation and application of the Equal Protection Clause was evolving. Writing for a majority of the Court in Harper and overruling Breedlove, Justice William O. Douglas concluded, ‘‘[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.’’
At issue in Harper was a provision of the Virginia Constitution requiring payment of $1.50 as a precondition for voting. Virginia residents brought suit, challenging the provision as an unconstitutional violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Relying on Breedlove, a three-judge panel in the Eastern District of Virginia dismissed the complaint.
In overruling the district court, Justice Douglas acknowledged that the right to vote in state elections is not included in the text of the Constitution. However, he relied upon previous voter qualification cases to demonstrate that ‘‘once the franchise is granted to the electorate, lines may not be drawn which are inconsistent with the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.’’ The Court explained that determining whether a provision limiting suffrage is acceptable requires more than an inquiry into whether there is a rational basis for the categorization scheme. This heightened scrutiny for issues surrounding voting followed Reynolds v. Sims (1964), where the Court invalidated a voting district system that diluted the relative power of some citizens. Because, as Justice Douglas noted in Harper, ‘‘the right of suffrage is a fundamental matter in a free and democratic society’’ and voting is ‘‘preservative of other basic civil and political rights,’’ any classification that may restrain this fundamental right must be ‘‘closely scrutinized and carefully confined.’’
In applying this searching review, the Court analogized wealth classifications to those based upon race, stating that both ‘‘are traditionally disfavored.’’ Justice Douglas concluded that because one’s wealth is not related to capacity for effective exercise of the right to vote, the consideration of that factor in voter qualifications constituted invidious discrimination.
The Court acknowledged that Harper marked a departure from its previous analysis of the poll tax issue. In discussing this departure, Justice Douglas underscored the fact that the definition of equal protection is not static, not ‘‘confined to historic notions of equality,’’ but is dynamic. Considering the fundamental importance of equal access to the vote, the Court concluded that the Equal Protection Clause required the reversal of the district court’s opinion.
Thus, Harper’s significance went beyond the termination of the use of the poll tax in state elections. It constituted yet another important decision expanding the franchise to more Americans and demonstrated the application of heightened equal protection scrutiny to classifications disadvantaging the poor.
REBECCA GOODGAME EBINGER
Cases and Statutes Cited