Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections

RESPONDENT: Virginia Board of Elections
LOCATION: Virginia General Assembly

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1965-1967)

CITATION: 383 US 663 (1966)
ARGUED: Jan 25, 1966 / Jan 26, 1966
DECIDED: Mar 24, 1966

Facts of the case

Annie E. Harper, a resident of Virginia, filed suit alleging that the state's poll tax was unconstitutional. After a three-judge district court dismissed the complaint, the case went to the Supreme Court. This case was decided together with Butts v. Harrison.


Did the Virginia poll tax violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Media for Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 26, 1966 in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 25, 1966 in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections

Earl Warren:

Number 48, Annie E. Harper et al., Appellants, versus Virginia State Board of Elections et al., and Number 655, Evelyn Butts, Appellant, versus Albertis Harrison, Governor, et al.

Mr. Brown.

Allison W. Brown, Jr.:

May it please the Court.

These cases are on appeal from a statutory three-judge District Court which had dismissed the complaint of the plaintiffs who sought a declaratory judgment and an injunction against the enforcement and administration of the Virginia poll tax laws which require a payment of certain sums of money as a prerequisite to voting in state and local elections.

The plaintiffs based their suit on a Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The State in its motion to dismiss and answer challen -- defended the constitutionality of the -- of the poll tax laws to challenge the con -- the standing of the plaintiffs to bring the suit on the ground that by their own admissions, they constituted a class which was ineligible to both under Virginia law.

The plaintiffs had alleged that though they were qualified in every respect to both under the Virginia statutes, they lack the financial means to pay the poll tax.

And if by their poverty they were therefore deprived the right to vote.

The State's argument was that the plaintiffs fell within the class of persons known as paupers who are disqualified under Virginia law from voting as are other classes such as idiots, insane persons, persons convicted of certain crimes.

The District Court dismissed the case after hearing it on the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and on the State's motion for a motion to dismiss.

The District Court decided the case on the basis of this Court's decision in 1937 in Breedlove v. Suttles which had sustained the constitutionality of a Georgia poll tax requirement substantially similar to the one in -- now existing in Virginia.

The Court also dismissed the plaintiff's challenge to the pauper disqualification on the ground that there was no showing that it had been applied to deprive the plaintiffs of the right to vote.

And that they therefore were without standing to challenge this provision of the law.


Allison W. Brown, Jr.:

This might mean that.

It's unclear, sir.

Presumably if you can't pay the poll tax, you're a pauper.

If you can pay the poll tax, you wouldn't be a pauper.

The pauper provision has never been tested and never been --

Never been applied?

Allison W. Brown, Jr.:

It -- well it has never been applied because there -- the poll tax has served as an effective deterrent or bar to voting by purpose -- persons falling in that class of Virginia.

The poll tax in the Virginia is a $1.50 payable three -- six months prior to the election.

A person who has lived in the State for more than three years must pay -- for three years or more must pay the tax cumulatively to -- and if he has never paid it, he must -- or has paid it made delinquents payments, he must pay penalty and interest charges which are added to the poll tax.

So that as in the case of these four appellants in this proceeding, in order to register and qualify themselves to vote and to cast their first ballot in Virginia, none of them have ever voted, they would have to pay a maximum of individually of $5.01.

Two of the plaintiffs are husband and wife and from their household budget it would require a payment of $10.02 in order for them to vote.

The plaintiff's first argument is that this disqualificaton or that that -- that is that this financial requirement serves as a bar to voting for paupers, indigents, poor people, persons who are of the class which -- from which plaintiffs -- which plaintiffs here represent.

This Court in the case decided last term, Harman v. Forssenius commented on the well-known fact that the -- the truck, the disenfranchisement of the poor is occasioned by the failure to pay the tax.

The tax not only disenfranchised the persons without any means but persons who are below the level of economic income where there the -- the question of paying a tax represents a choice between the necessities of life, food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and so forth.

The census figures for 1960 showed that 28% of all Virginia families had incomes in 1959 of below $3,000 a year.

This was the -- this is the level that is currently recognized in governmental circles as representing the -- the boundary of poverty, the upper boundary of poverty, $3,000.