Harper v. Virginia Bd. of Elections,
383 U.S. 663 (1966)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Harper v. Virginia Bd. of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966)

Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections

No. 48

Argued January 25-26, 1966

Decided March 24, 1966*

383 U.S. 663


Appellants, Virginia residents, brought this action to have Virginia's poll tax declared unconstitutional. The three-judge District Court dismissed the complaint on the basis of Breedlove v. Suttles, 302 U. S. 277.

Held: A State's conditioning of the right to vote on the payment of a fee or tax violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Breedlove v. Suttle, supra, pro tanto overruled. Pp. 383 U. S. 665-670.

(a) Once the franchise is granted to the electorate, lines which determine who may vote may not be drawn so as to cause invidious discrimination. Pp. 383 U. S. 665-667.

(b) Fee payments or wealth, like race, creed, or color, are unrelated to the citizen's ability to participate intelligently in the electoral process. Pp. 383 U. S. 666-668.

(c) The interest of the State, when it comes to voting registration, is limited to the fixing of standards related to the applicant's qualifications as a voter. P. 383 U. S. 668.

(d) Lines drawn on the basis of wealth or property, like those of race, are traditionally disfavored. P. 383 U. S. 668.

(e) Classifications which might impinge on fundamental rights and liberties -- such as the franchise -- must be closely scrutinized. P. 383 U. S. 670.

240 F.Supp. 270, reversed.

Page 383 U. S. 664

Primary Holding

The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from requiring citizens to pay a fee or tax to obtain access to polls.


Annie Harper, a resident of Virginia, could not pay the state-imposed poll tax of $1.50 that was required to establish the eligibility to vote. By this time, only five states imposed poll taxes for their elections. They had been made unconstitutional in federal elections by the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, passed two years earlier. Harper argued that the poll tax deprived indigent Virginia residents, who were otherwise eligible to vote, of their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The federal district court dismissed her claim, based in part on a 1937 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that had ruled poll taxes to be within the powers of the states.



  • William Orville Douglas (Author)
  • Earl Warren
  • Tom C. Clark
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Abe Fortas

Overruling its own precedent in Breedlove v. Suttles (1937), the majority pointed out that the eligibility to vote has no rational connection to the wealth of an individual. Thus, the poll tax could not meet the heightened standard of review applied to restrictions on voting, which is a fundamental right under the Fourteenth Amendment. It is important to note that there was no textual basis for this stark reversal, since the Twenty-fourth Amendment applied only to federal elections. This is an example of a situation in which the changing membership of the Court and changing attitudes in society propelled a change in the law.


  • John Marshall Harlan II (Author)
  • Potter Stewart

Arguing that the poll tax did pass the rational basis test, Harlan found that the state had a legitimate interest in collecting revenue. He felt that it was reasonable to think that people who were willing to pay to vote would have a greater interest in directing the course of state policy. According to Harlan, this type of classification was no less rational than the literacy test that the Court had upheld in Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections (1959).


  • Hugo Lafayette Black (Author)

Black argued for a stricter adherence to precedent and the text of the Fourteenth Amendment. He articulated a more traditional understanding of the Constitution as susceptible to extension only by the legislative process.

Case Commentary

Voting is a fundamental right, so any restriction on it likely will need to pass strict scrutiny, which rarely happens. In addition to a possible disparate impact against under-represented groups, which are typically poorer, the statute could be viewed as discriminating on the basis of economic status. Poverty is not a protected classification, however, so attacking the law on this basis alone would not have succeeded.

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