Poll tax

Poll tax

A poll tax, head tax, or capitation is a tax of a uniform, fixed amount per individual (as opposed to a percentage of income). When a corvée is commuted for cash payment, in effect it becomes a poll tax (and vice versa, if a poll tax obligation can be worked off). Such taxes were important sources of revenue for many governments from ancient times into the 19th century, but are not any more. There are several famous cases of poll taxes in history, notably a tax formerly required for voting in parts of the United States that was often designed to disfranchise poor people, including African Americans, Native Americans, and white people of non-British descent. In the United Kingdom, such taxes were levied by John of Gaunt and Margaret Thatcher in the 14th and 20th centuries respectively.

The word "" is an English word that once meant "head", hence the name "poll tax" for a per-person tax. However, in the United States, the term has come to be used almost exclusively for a fixed tax applied to voting. Since "going to the polls" is a common idiom for voting (deriving from the fact that early voting involved head-counts), a new folk etymology has supplanted common knowledge of the phrase's true origins in America.

United States

A poll tax in the sense of "capitation" plays a significant role in the history of taxation in the United States and the adoption of income tax as a significant source of government funding. However, the second meaning of poll tax, namely a tax to be paid as a prerequisite to voting, is more widely known in the US today. It was widely used in the South after the turn of the 20th century in combination with other measures to bar black and poor whites from voter registration and voting. Recent debate has arisen about whether requiring citizens to purchase a state identification card (to prevent voter fraud) acts as a poll tax and bars poor voters from voting. cite web
title = Georgia's New Poll Tax
url = http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/12/opinion/12mon1.html
year = 2005
month = September
day = 12
] To help prevent this from happening Georgia and Indiana states are offering free identification cards for those who can demonstrate the need. However, the cost of traveling to a government office can be prohibitive for the homeless and the poorest of society. In addition, there may costs in requiring the documents needed for an identification card.

Capitation and Federal taxation

The capitation clause of Article I of the United States Constitution, reads " [n] o capitation, or other direct, tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the census or enumeration herein before directed to be taken." Capitation here means a tax of a uniform, fixed amount per taxpayer.cite web
last = United States Department of State
authorlink = United States Department of State
year = 2004
url = http://usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/constitution/constitution.htm
title = The Constitution of the United States of America with Explanatory Notes
work = US Department of State web site
publisher = United States
accessdate = 2008-05-18
] Direct tax means a tax levied directly by the United States federal government on taxpayers, as opposed to a tax on events or transactions.cite web
last = United States Department of the Treasury
authorlink = United States Department of the Treasury
url = http://www.treasury.gov/education/fact-sheets/taxes/ustax.html
title = History of the U.S. Tax System
work = US Treasury Department : Education : Fact Sheets : Taxes
publisher = United States
accessdate = 2005-05-06

The United States government levied direct taxes from time to time during the 18th and early 19th centuries. It levied direct taxes on the owners of houses, land, slaves, and estates in the late 1790s, but cancelled the taxes in 1802.

An income tax is neither a poll tax nor a capitation, as the amount of tax will vary from person to person depending on each person's income. Until a United States Supreme Court decision in 1895, all income taxes were deemed to be excises (indirect taxes). The Revenue Act of 1861 established the first income tax in the United States, to pay for the cost of the American Civil War. This income tax was abolished after the war, in 1872. Another income tax statute in 1894 was overturned in "Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co." in 1895, where the Supreme Court held that income taxes on income from property, such as rent income, interest income, and dividend income (but not income taxes on income from wages, employment, etc.) were to be treated as direct taxes. Because the statute in question had not apportioned income taxes on income from property by population, the statute was ruled unconstitutional. Finally, ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1913 made possible modern income taxes, by removing the requirement of apportionment with respect to income taxes.

The United States government does not levy capitation taxes today.

Tax on voting

A poll tax, in the sense of a discrimination tax which was a pre-condition of the exercise of the right to vote, emerged in some US states in the late 19th century. After the right to vote was extended to all races by the enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment, many Southern states enacted poll tax laws which often included a grandfather clause that allowed any adult male whose father or grandfather had voted in a specific year prior to the abolition of slavery to vote without paying the tax. These laws achieved the desired effect of disfranchising African and Native Americans as well as poor whites who immigrated after the year specified.

The United States government did not levy poll taxes that blocked access to voting rights. Partly this is because the national government earned its revenues from income tax and excise taxes rather than from capitation, which required apportionment among the states. Also, this is because the national government did not conduct elections for its offices, instead delegating conduct of elections to the states.

The 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964, outlawed the use of this tax (or any other tax) as a pre-condition in voting in Federal elections. The 1966 Supreme Court case "Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections" extended this explicit enactment as a matter of judicial interpretation of a more general provision, ruling that the imposition of a poll tax in state elections violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. This is one of several rulings that rely on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment rather than the more direct provision of the 15th. In a two-month period in the spring of 1966, the last four states to still charge a poll tax laws had those laws declared unconstitutional by Federal courts, starting with Texas on February 9. Decisions followed for Alabama (Mar. 3) and Virginia (Mar. 25). Mississippi's $2.00 poll tax was the last to fall, declared unconstitutional on April 8, 1966, by a Federal panel in Jackson, Miss. [ "The World Almanac 1966", p. 68 ]

United Kingdom

The poll tax was essentially a lay subsidy (a tax on the movable property of most of the population) to help fund war. It had first been levied in 1275 and continued, under different names, until the 17th century.

People were taxed a percentage of the assessed value of their movable goods. That percentage varied from year to year and place to place, and which goods could be taxed differed between urban and rural locations.

Churchmen were exempt, as were the poor, workers in the Royal Mint, inhabitants of the Cinque Ports, tin workers in Cornwall and Devon, and those who lived in the Palatinate counties of Cheshire and Durham.

14th century

John of Gaunt, the regent of Richard II of England, levied a poll tax in 1377 to finance the war against France. This tax covered almost 60% of the population, far more than lay subsidies had earlier. It was levied three times, in 1377, 1379 and 1381. Each time the basis was slightly different.In 1377, everyone over age 14 and not exempt had to pay a groat (4d) to the Crown. By 1379 that had been graded by social class, with the lower limit raised to 16, and 15 two years later. The levy in 1381 was particularly unpopular, as each person aged over 15 was required to pay the amount of one shilling, which was then a large amount. This provoked the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, due in part to attempts to restore feudal conditions in rural areas.

20th century: community charge

The Community Charge was a poll tax to fund local government in the United Kingdom, instituted in 1989 by the government of Margaret Thatcher. It replaced the rates that were based on the notional rental value of a house. The abolition of rates was in the manifesto of Thatcher's Conservative Party in the 1979 general election, and the replacement was proposed in the Green Paper of 1986, "Paying for Local Government" based on ideas developed by Dr Madsen Pirie and Douglas Mason of the Adam Smith Institute. It was a fixed tax per adult resident, but there was a reduction for poor people. Each person was to pay for the services provided in their community. This proposal was contained in the Conservative Manifesto for the 1987 General Election. The new tax replaced the rates in Scotland from the start of the 1989/90 financial year and in England and Wales from the start of the 1990/91 financial year.

The system was unpopular. It seemed to shift the tax burden from rich to poor, as it was based on the number of people living in a house rather than its estimated price. Many tax rates set by local councils proved to be much higher than earlier predictions, leading to resentment even among people who had supported it. The tax in different boroughs differed dramatically because local taxes paid by businesses varied and grants by central government to local authorities sometimes varied capriciously.

There were mass protests, called by the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation to which the vast majority of local Anti Poll Tax Unions (APTUs) were affiliated. In Scotland the APTUs called for mass non-payment and these calls rapidly gathered widespread support which spread to England and Wales, even though non-payment meant that people could be prosecuted. In some areas, 30% of former ratepayers defaulted. While owner-occupiers were easy to tax, those who regularly changed accommodation were almost impossible to pursue if they chose not to pay. The cost of collecting the tax rose steeply while the returns from it fell. Enforcement measures became increasingly draconian, and unrest grew and culminated in a number of Poll Tax Riots. The most serious was in a protest at Trafalgar Square, London, on March 31 1990, of more than 200,000 protesters. A Labour MP, Terry Fields, was jailed for 60 days for refusing to pay his poll tax.

This unrest was instrumental in toppling Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Her replacement, John Major, replaced the Community Charge with the Council Tax system, effective from 1993-94. That tax was very similar to the rating system that preceded the Poll Tax. The main differences were that it was levied on capital value rather than notional rental value of a property, and that it had a 25% discount for single-occupancy dwellings.


The Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 stipulated that all Chinese entering Canada would be subjected to a head tax of $50. The act was mostly to discourage the lower class Chinese from entering, since Canada still welcomed the rich Chinese merchants who could afford the head tax. After the Government of Canada realized that the $50 fee did not effectively eliminate Chinese from entering Canada, the government passed the Chinese Immigration Act of 1900 and 1903, increasing the tax to $100 and $500, respectively. In 1923, the government passed Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 which prohibited all Chinese from immigrating to Canada.

On June 22, 2006, the Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper delivered a message of redress for a head tax once applied to Chinese immigrants.cite web
last = Canada
authorlink = Office of the Prime Minister (Canada)
year = 2006
url = http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media.asp?category=2&id=1220
title = Address by the Prime Minister on the Chinese Head Tax Redress
publisher = Government of Canada
accessdate = 2006-08-08
] Survivors or their spouses will receive $20,000 CAD compensation.cite web
last = Canada
authorlink = Office of the Prime Minister
year = 2006
url = http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media.asp?category=2&id=1220
title = Address by the Prime Minister on the Chinese Head Tax Redress
publisher = Government of Canada
accessdate = 2006-08-08

New Zealand

The numbers of the Chinese immigration went from 20 000 a year to 8 people after the government imposed "head tax". New Zealand imposed a poll tax on Chinese immigrants during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The poll tax was effectively lifted in the 1930s following the invasion of China by Japan, and was finally repealed in 1944. Prime Minister Helen Clark offered New Zealand's Chinese community an official apology for the poll tax on 12 February 2002.cite web
last = New Zealand Office of Ethnic Affairs
authorlink = New Zealand Office of Ethnic Affairs
year = 2002
url = http://www.dia.govt.nz/oeawebsite.nsf/wpg_URL/What-We-Do-Consultations-Formal-Apology
title = Chinese Poll Tax in New Zealand - Formal Apology
publisher = New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs
accessdate = 2006-08-18

ee also

* Disfranchisement after the Civil War
* Corvée


External links

* [http://www.exploregenealogy.co.uk/PollTaxMiddleAges.html Middle Ages Poll Tax] .
* [http://www.caliach.com/paulr/news/polltax/index.html Pictures by Paul Ross who witnessed the riot] .
* [http://www.militant.org.uk/PollTax.html The Battle that brought down Thatcher] - a perspective by the Trotskyist Militant tendency.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • poll tax — / pōl / n: a tax of a fixed amount per person levied on adults Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Law. Merriam Webster. 1996. poll tax …   Law dictionary

  • Poll tax — Poll Poll, n. [Akin to LG. polle the head, the crest of a bird, the top of a tree, OD. pol, polle, Dan. puld the crown of a hat.] 1. The head; the back part of the head. All flaxen was his poll. Shak. [1913 Webster] 2. A number or aggregate of… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • poll-tax — pollˈ money or pollˈ tax noun A tax of so much a head, ie on each person alike • • • Main Entry: ↑poll …   Useful english dictionary

  • poll tax — ➔ tax1 …   Financial and business terms

  • poll tax — n [Date: 1600 1700; Origin: poll head ; POLL1] a tax of a particular amount that is collected from every citizen of a country …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • poll-tax|er — «POHL TAK suhr», noun. U.S. Informal. person supporting the levy of a poll tax …   Useful english dictionary

  • poll tax — n. a tax per head, levied on individuals rather than on property: such a tax as a prerequisite for voting is unconstitutional in the U.S …   English World dictionary

  • poll tax — poll ,tax noun count an amount of money collected as a tax from every adult citizen of a particular country …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • poll tax — poll′ tax n. gov a capitation tax, sometimes levied as a prerequisite for voting • Etymology: 1685–95 …   From formal English to slang

  • poll tax — ► NOUN ▪ a tax levied on every adult, without reference to their income or resources …   English terms dictionary

  • Poll-tax — (engl., spr. pōl täcks, »Kopfsteuer«), in England Bezeichnung des zum Behuf der Parlamentswahlen zusammengestellten Wahlregisters und des Wahlaktes selbst …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

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