Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections

383 U.S. 663 (1966)


Virginia residents sought to have provisions of the Virginia Constitution requiring payment of a poll tax to vote declared unconstitutional.

Procedural History

The district court below dismissed the complaint.


Does a poll tax violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law?

Rule / Holding

Yes.  Reversed.  Virginia’s poll tax violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  A state violates the equal protection clause “whenever it makes the affluence of the voter or payment of any fee an electoral standard.”


Once the ability to vote in state elections is created, the state may not establish standards that invidiously discriminate in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.  When fundamental rights such as the right to vote are asserted under the equal protection clause, “classifications which might invade or restrain them must be closely scrutinized and carefully confined.”  A person’s wealth or ability to pay a tax has no relation to his qualifications as a voter.

Justice Black dissented on the grounds that a poll tax does not violate the equal protection clause and the clause should not be used to write into the Constitution the Court’s notion of good governmental policy.

In a separate dissent, Justice Harlan argued that the Court departed from long-established standards governing the equal protection clause and that there was a rational basis for a state’s poll tax as a voting qualification.

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