Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections

383 U.S. 663 (1966)

Quick Summary

Harper (plaintiff) challenging the constitutionality of Virginia’s poll tax against the Virginia State Board of Elections (defendant). The dispute centered on whether requiring payment to vote violated the Equal Protection Clause.

The Supreme Court concluded that conditioning voting rights on financial capacity was unconstitutional, reversing the lower court’s dismissal and overruling precedent upholding poll taxes.

Facts of the Case

Harper, a resident of Virginia (plaintiff), challenged the constitutionality of Virginia’s poll tax. The tax, mandated by Section 173 of the Virginia Constitution, required a fee of up to $1.50 to be paid annually by residents aged twenty-one or older in order to vote.

Harper argued that this tax infringed upon the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Virginia State Board of Elections (defendant) maintained the legality of the tax.

The dispute arose from the imposition of a financial barrier to the fundamental right to vote, which Harper contended was discriminatory and unconstitutional. The case reflected a broader struggle against voting practices that disenfranchised certain groups of citizens, particularly those of lesser economic means.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Harper filed suit against the Virginia State Board of Elections in federal district court.
  2. The district court dismissed the complaint.
  3. Harper appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the imposition of a poll tax as a precondition for voting violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Rule of Law

No state shall make the affluence of a voter or the payment of any fee a standard for electoral eligibility. Voter qualifications must not be related to wealth or the payment of taxes.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court examined whether there was a legitimate basis for conditioning the right to vote on the payment of a poll tax. The Court acknowledged that while states have the power to set voter qualifications, these must not be discriminatory or contravene federal restrictions.

The Court found that wealth or tax payment bore no relation to an individual’s ability to participate intelligently in the electoral process and therefore should not be used as a voter qualification.

Comparing to past rulings that struck down discriminatory practices, the Court emphasized that voting is a fundamental right, preservative of other rights. The imposition of a poll tax was deemed an arbitrary and invidious discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause, leading to the conclusion that Breedlove v. Suttles was outdated and must be overruled in this respect.


The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court and ruled that Virginia’s poll tax as a prerequisite for voting was unconstitutional.

Dissenting Opinions

Justice Black dissented, arguing that the Constitution has not been amended to prohibit poll taxes in state elections and maintaining that such decisions should be left to state legislatures or the amendment process. He upheld prior decisions that validated poll taxes and criticized the majority for overstepping constitutional boundaries by imposing their policy preferences.

Justice Harlan, joined by Justice Stewart, also dissented, expressing concern for maintaining judicial restraint and adherence to traditional standards for applying the Equal Protection Clause. They argued that rational bases existed for Virginia’s poll tax and that its invalidation should have been left to political processes rather than judicial intervention.

Key Takeaways

  1. The Supreme Court ruled that state-imposed poll taxes as a condition for voting violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  2. Wealth or the payment of a fee cannot be used as criteria for determining voter eligibility.
  3. The decision overturned previous rulings that had allowed poll taxes and underscored voting as a fundamental right not subject to economic barriers.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes an infringement on the Equal Protection Clause when setting voter qualifications?

An infringement on the Equal Protection Clause occurs when voter qualifications are established based on criteria that result in disparate treatment of individuals without a justifiable government interest. These criteria include race, gender, and, as seen in Harper v. Virginia, wealth. A law resulting in voter discrimination without a compelling state interest violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

  • For example: A state law requiring property ownership to vote would likely be deemed unconstitutional as it discriminates against non-property owners and is not necessary to assess an individual’s suitability to vote.

How does judicial intervention balance with respect for legislative processes in protecting fundamental rights?

Judicial intervention is justified when legislative processes infringe upon fundamental rights protected by the Constitution. The judiciary has a duty to uphold constitutional guarantees and may overrule statutes that violate these principles even if it means invalidating democratically enacted laws.

  • For example: If a legislature passes a law that restricts freedom of speech, courts can overturn it, reaffirming that free expression supersedes legislative discretion.

Under what circumstances can states impose conditions on the exercise of voting rights?

States can impose conditions on voting rights as long as those conditions are consistent with the Constitution and do not discriminate based on prohibited characteristics like race, sex, or socioeconomic status. Any such conditions must serve a legitimate state interest and be narrowly tailored to achieve their intended purpose without unnecessary infringement.

  • For example: States may require voter registration in advance of an election to ensure orderly administration of voting but cannot use this process to disenfranchise specific groups.


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