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What is a poll tax doing in North Dakota?

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Measure #1 on the November ballot has been proposed by the Legislature to repeal Section 6 of Article X of the North Dakota constitution:

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The legislative assembly may provide for the levy, collection and disposition of an annual poll tax of not more than one dollar and fifty cents on every male inhabitant of the state over twenty-one and under fifty years of age, except paupers, idiots, insane persons and Indians not taxed.

The section was never implemented but anyone familiar with the history of poll taxes in America would ask: what is this tool known for racial discrimination doing in the North Dakota constitution?

This language was placed in a constitution being drafted during the same era as Southern states were implementing the poll tax to suppress the African-American vote.

In order to vote in the South, citizens were first required to register. If they passed that barrier, they then had to pay the poll tax, acquire a receipt, and show it to the local election officials before being allowed to vote.

Many of the poor uneducated citizens of the South, mostly African-Americans but also poor whites, either failed to pass the registration hurdles or failed to pay the poll tax and found themselves ineligible to vote.

As far as the governing whites were concerned, the system worked like a charm, even though it took poor whites out of the electorate along with the African-Americans. As result, the poll tax became identified as a gimmick for racial discrimination.

In the campaign to end discrimination, the Congress proposed Amendment #24 of the U.S. Constitution in 1962 to outlaw the poll tax as a prerequisite for voting for federal officials. It was adopted in 1964.

In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court took the next step by ruling that payment of a poll tax could not be a prerequisite for voting for any elected official, even dogcatcher.

In 1889, we had no African-Americans so who were the targets of discrimination through a poll tax? Germans from Russia? Norwegians from Stavanger?

Since this provision has been in our constitution since 1889, the proceedings of the constitutional convention should shed some light on the reasoning behind this provision.

On the 34th day of the convention, the subject came up. As soon as the language providing for the poll tax was read, Delegate Noble of Bottineau moved a substitute provision to prohibit the use of the poll tax in North Dakota.

Delegate Parsons of Morton County supported Noble's proposal.

"Here is a relic of feudal times," he said. "This idea of taxing people so much a head - taxing people who never ride a wagon, never use the roads from one year's end to another - taxing them to keep up the roads is an outrage."

So the poll tax was not about racial discrimination but financing roads - an argument that continues today.

The short debate over the poll tax focused on whether or not it was equitable to tax poor people three dollars a year for roads. The argument ended when Noble moved that the tax be cut from three dollars to one and a half. Apparently, that was affordable and the poll tax was approved.

By the 2011 legislative session, the gasoline tax, Bakken oil revenue and federal highway aid seemed sufficient to maintain our roads. So the Legislature thought it was financially safe to repeal the poll tax and we now have Measure #1 before us.

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