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Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections

    Brief Fact Summary. Voters challenge the constitutionality of a poll tax.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Prerequisite payments within the election process are unconstitutional.

    Facts. Voters challenged the constitutionality of Virginia’s poll tax. The right to vote was conditioned on the payment of a poll tax. The District Court dismissed the case because it relied on Breedlove v. Suttles, which upheld a “[l]evy ‘by the poll’” as a prerequisite to voting. The judgment is reversed.

    Issue. Whether requiring payment of a poll tax before one can vote is constitutional.

    Held. Justice William Douglas (J. Douglas). No. “[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.” “[W]ealth or fee paying has, in our view, no relation to voting qualifications; the right to vote is too precious, too fundamental to be so burdened or conditioned.” The judgment is reversed.

    Dissent. The dissenting opinions are as follows:
    Justice Hugo Black (J. Black). If there is a rational reason for an electoral prerequisite payment, then it must be upheld. Only the legislature, not the courts, can strike down a poll tax.
    Justice John Harlan (J. Harlan). The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) has overstepped its bounds by striking down the poll tax.

    Discussion. This case overrules the decision of Breedlove v. Suttles, which upheld an older form of taxation that was used as a prerequisite for voting.


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