Living Columns & Blogs

Sarah Lim: 100 years since the poll tax was enacted

Volta School in Merced County, 1914. Volta precinct voted down Proposition 10, “Abolition of Poll Tax,” with a margin of 56 to 26. The poll tax was used to fund public schools like this one.
Volta School in Merced County, 1914. Volta precinct voted down Proposition 10, “Abolition of Poll Tax,” with a margin of 56 to 26. The poll tax was used to fund public schools like this one. Courthouse Museum Collection

My friend and mentor Nancy Taniguchi and I were having lunch the other day. During our meal, we discussed the poll tax and its impact on Chinese immigrants in Merced County. After lunch, I decided to do some research about the poll tax. What I learned is that 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of a historic election in California regarding the poll tax.

The poll tax, also known as a head tax, was levied on individuals, who had to pay the tax in order to vote. The poll tax became a prerequisite for voting in the postbellum South and was widely used to suppress and discourage African Americans from exercising their newly gained rights.

In post-Civil War Merced County, Chinese immigrants found themselves paying the poll tax, too. In the Merced County poll tax records from 1881 to 1913, their names appeared page after page on the tax rolls. So why did the Chinese immigrants pay the poll tax even though they were ineligible to vote?

According to the California State Constitution of 1879 Article 13, Section 12, “The legislature shall provide for the levy and collection of an annual poll tax, of not less than two dollars, on every male inhabitant of this state over twenty-one and under sixty years of age, except paupers, idiots, insane persons, and Indians not taxed. Said tax shall be paid into the state school fund.”

While the poll tax was used as a political tool in the American South to disfranchise African Americans and poor whites, the poll tax in California was intended to generate revenue for public schools. As stated, it applied to all males between the ages of 21 and 60, which included both citizens and aliens. With that, all Chinese male immigrants over 21 and under 60 years of age were required to pay the tax, regardless of their eligibility to vote.

A little closer look reveals that the law’s race, class and gender components had unintended consequences. First, although the poll tax was not written as a voting prerequisite in the California State Constitution, it did serve as a de facto discrimination against freed blacks as it deterred them from the polling places.

For the poor voters, black or white, a $2 levy inflicted hardship on those who struggled to earn a living in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Two dollars in 1879 is equivalent to $47.62 in 2014. Voting then became more of a privilege than a right.

Finally, women were exempt from the poll tax because they had very little social or political standing in a male-dominated society. When the law was written, women were not allowed to vote and married women were not allowed to own personal property. After women won the Suffrage Movement in California and gained their voting rights in 1911, there were discussions about a state constitutional amendment expanding the poll tax to include women. It then became moot when public sentiment supported abolishing the poll tax.

Abolition of the poll tax was on the ballot in the 1914 election. Proposition 10, “Abolition of Poll Tax,” created a contentious and passionate debate. The argument for abolition described the tax as unfair and unnecessary. It was unfair because the tax was not uniformly collected and unnecessary because a corporate tax could make up the deficiency if the poll tax was abolished.

Those who were against abolition believed that the poll tax was fair and just and that lax enforcement should not be the reason to repeal a good law. They argued that the loss of revenue from the poll tax would be detrimental to all public schools in the state, and to roads and hospitals in 35 counties.

Proposition 10 was passed on Nov. 3, 1914, ending the poll tax law in California, but in Merced County it was voted down 2,939 to 1,774. For some of the Southern states, the poll taxes were not abolished until the 1960s.

As we commemorate the centennial of the abolition of the California poll tax, which effectively removed an obstacle to voter participation, it is important to take another look on the treatment of aliens in the state. As passionate as they were in their pro and con arguments, both sides did stand in agreement about taxing aliens. Although it is well-documented in the Merced County poll tax rolls that the Chinese immigrants dutifully paid their poll taxes, they were often portrayed as tax evaders and threats to society. After the abolition of the poll tax in 1914, the alien poll tax was put on California’s ballot in 1919.

In this election season, don’t forget to vote and don’t forget those who have paved the way so we can vote. To view the poll tax rolls and learn more about the history of Merced County, please visit the Courthouse Museum. Currently on display is the “Our Stories: Mexican American Experience in Merced County” exhibit. Admission to the museum is free.

Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at mercedmuseum@sbcglobal.net.

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