Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections

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383 U.S. 663 (1966), argued 25–26 Jan. 1966, decided 24 Mar. 1966 by vote of 6 to 3; Douglas for the Court, Black and Harlan, joined by Stewart, in dissent. The Twenty-fourth Amendment (1964) to the U.S. Constitution banned poll taxes as a condition for voting in national elections. Harper challenged the $1.50 Virginia annual poll tax as a precondition for voting in state elections. A three-judge U.S. District Court followed Bread-love v. Suttles (1937) and dismissed the claim.

On appeal the Supreme Court overruled Breedlove in part and held that state requirements for fees or taxes that limit the right to vote are unconstitutional. Justice William O. Douglas, writing for the majority, argued that the political franchise is a fundamental right that cannot be denied because of lack of wealth, property, or economic status. Such standards constitute invidious discrimination that violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. He also suggested that lack of wealth—or indigency—might be regarded as a suspect classification requiring strict scrutiny. Harper extends the Reynolds v. Sims (1964) principle that all voters must have an equal opportunity to participate in state elections.

The dissenters claimed that there was a rational basis for the Virginia poll tax and that states should have broad constitutional leeway under the Equal Protection Clause to establish voter qualifications. Both argued that property qualifications and poll taxes are part of the constitutional framework.

The impact of Harper was limited. Only three states used poll taxes (Alabama, Texas, and Mississippi) as a condition of voting at that time. And Douglas's suggestion that wealth be regarded as a suspect classification was rejected by Dandridge v. Williams (1970) and San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973).

Steven Puro

Subjects: Law.

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