Beatles, Poll Taxes and an Unfinished Amendment

Three days before the Fab Four touched down at John F. Kennedy airport, President Lyndon B. Johnson presided over the official certification of the recently ratified 24th Amendment, which abolished poll taxes in federal elections.

Now that the media hoopla over the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' arrival in America is finally subsiding, it's worth remembering another landmark event from that week in 1964 -- and why it still matters.

Three days before the Fab Four touched down at John F. Kennedy airport, President Lyndon B. Johnson presided over the official certification of the recently ratified 24th Amendment, which abolished poll taxes in federal elections. Kennedy had led the push for the amendment, declaring that, "The right to vote in a free American election is the most powerful and precious right in the world." In certifying the amendment, Johnson told the nation: "There can now be no one too poor to vote."

But some states refused to accept that.

Virginia did not ratify the amendment until 1977. North Carolina waited until 1989. Alabama until 2002. And Texas until 2009. Today, there are still five southern states (Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Carolina) and three others (Arizona, Oklahoma and Wyoming) that have not ratified the 24th Amendment.


To do so now would be only symbolic, of course. But symbols shape how voters perceive their government. Poll taxes were created and sustained primarily to suppress voter turnout among blacks. The continued failure to ratify the 24th Amendment suggests an indifference, at best, to civil rights -- and an insensitivity to historic wrongs. Mississippi voted to reject the amendment in 1962, the only state to do so, and it has let that vote stand. That's an embarrassment to the country, and the only saving grace is that few people know about it.

It took Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina 50 years to ratify the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing a woman's right to vote. Mississippi, the last holdout, finally got around to it in 1984. So there is still hope for the 24th Amendment -- and there is a useful way to prod recalcitrant states into action.

Last month, Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner and Michigan Democrat John Conyers Jr., introduced legislation into the House reviving the key provision of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down last yearin Shelby County v. Holder. The court found that the formula (which was based largely on voter turnout rates from the 1960s) for determining which counties and states were subject to direct federal oversight of their elections was so outdated as to be unconstitutional.

Direct federal oversight required jurisdictions to submit changes to their election laws and voting procedures to the Justice Department for approval, a process called "preclearance." Over the years, preclearance helped prevent many attempts to dilute the voting power of blacks and other minorities.

The Sensenbrenner-Conyers bill would update the preclearance formula by including only states with five voting rights violations over the past 15 years, as well as localities with three violations or one violation combined with "persistent, extremely low minority voter turnout." Under this formula, only four states would be covered: Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Of those, only Texas has ratified the 24th Amendment.

The bill is a compromise that raises some concerns (a topic for another time), but as it moves through the legislative process, Congress should improve it by including a simple provision: Any state that has not ratified the 24th Amendment by date certain would be subject to preclearance.

Once the question of ratification carries concrete -- and not merely symbolic -- importance, what possible rationale could states claim for not adopting it? Continued refusal to ratify the amendment would be evidence not merely of indifference to voting rights but outright hostility. That would be grounds enough to subject a state to preclearance, and it would be consistent with the Supreme Court's finding inShelby that Congress must identify states for preclearance based on their "current conditions."

If such a provision is ultimately adopted, all eight states will almost certainly take swift action to ratify the 24th Amendment. That would help remove those states from the still-lingering shadow of Jim Crow -- and remove a stubborn stain from our nation's record on civil rights.

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(Francis Barry is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.