Florida’s Road to Jim Crow Vote Suppression: Part II – the Poll Tax

In Part I, we discussed the re-registration law that Florida Democrats passed in 1877 immediately after taking full control of the state and the law’s  limited success in suppressing black voting in a handful of counties. White conservatives continued to face two significant challenges in their bid for total electoral domination of the state. Although the state’s demographics trended increasingly white, the narrow racial divide made white political control dependent on maintaining white electoral solidarity. Leadership was fully aware that their hysterical warnings about black-Republican voters bringing back the “outrages” of Reconstruction was an unstable platform on which to center a party. Still, pre-war Whigs and Democrats, who continued to hold their competing political and economic outlooks, suppressed their differences to form an unnatural alliance in the cause of white electoral domination. The fissures, however, were sure to resurface eventually. Should this uneasy, white Democratic coalition splinter, party leaders feared that unified black/Republican voters might still retake the state.

A second issue for Democratic leadership continued to be the status of whites in black majority counties.  Ante-bellum leadership for both Whigs and Democrats tended to come from the wealthy planter class which resided in the agricultural counties with large pre-war slave populations.  Although Republicans receded as an electoral threat for state offices after 1876, blacks continued to contest and win county-wide elections in Leon, Jefferson, Marion, Madison and Alachua counties well into the 1880s. Galling to Democrats, the second congressional district (north-east Florida) also continued to fall as the Republican Congress approved a series of challenges to election results by white, Republican candidate Horatio Bisbee.

Faced with these threats to their complete political domination, Democrats looked toward a legislative solution to prevent any possibility of black political power: the poll tax. The ultimate regressive tax- in which every eligible voter was assessed the same amount, each year – poll taxes, also known as capitation taxes, were common in America and had often been proposed to support education. Mandating payment of a poll tax as a prerequisite to voting, however, was new to Florida. In theory, the poll tax was race neutral. It was assumed, however, that black males, who typically worked in a cash-strapped agricultural economy resting on liens and barter, would be disproportionately impacted. This awareness could be discerned in the lightly veiled insinuations of newspaper editors who promoted the poll tax as a means to “protect” black majority counties “from the dangers of ignorant voters who take no interest in public affairs.” [Pensacola Commercial, July 11, 1885]. Mandating that the poll tax needed to be paid for multiple years prior to the electoral year prevented Republican operatives from distributing poll tax payment money to voters on the eve of the election. The additional requirement of presenting a receipt as proof of payment targeted blacks who, presumably illiterate, might be assumed not to preserve such paperwork.

Unlike the chaotic 1876 election, Florida Democrats, led by William D. Bloxham, triumphed easily four years later. In the ensuing 1881 legislative session, white Democrats, now safely in control of both houses, quickly passed laws prohibiting interracial cohabitation (Ch. 3282, No. 64) and “intermarriage of white persons with persons of color” (“colored” defined as 1/8 negro blood) (Ch. 3283, No. 65). In the same session, a resolution to amend the state constitution to mandate payment of a $1 capitation tax in the year preceding an election as a prerequisite to voting passed both houses. The barrier to enacting the poll tax, however, remained Article XIV of the 1868 “Carpetbagger” constitution which provided voting rights as follows:

Section 1. Every male person of the age of twenty-one years and upwards, of whatever race, color, nationality, or previous condition, who shall, at the time of offering to vote, be a citizen of the United States, or who shall have declared his intention to become such in conformity to the laws of the United States, and who shall have resided and had his habitation, domicil, home, and place of permanent abode in Florida for one year, and in the county for six months, next preceding the election at which he shall offer to vote, shall in such county be deemed a qualified elector at all elections under this Constitution.

In addition, the 1868 constitution’s drafters inserted safeguards (Article XVII) making amendments difficult by requiring passage by successive legislatures before submittal to the voters for approval. A poll tax would have to wait until at least the 1886 election.

In the ensuing years, newspaper editors increasingly clamored for the poll tax. In 1880, Florida voters had rejected a referendum to hold a convention to revise the constitution but four years later the Democratic campaign plank called for a convention to discard the hated 1868 constitution and pass a poll tax. The coalition formed in 1884 by white “Independent” defectors and black Republicans appeared to vindicate Democratic leadership fears that the declining black population might exploit white divisions to take power. The Democrats rallied behind war-hero candidate, General Edward A. Perry, who defeated his renegade white challenger. Motivated whites reversed the 1880 rejection by handily approving a convention to revise the constitution.

At the 1885 Constitutional convention, the poll tax became the subject of a complicated negotiation. Some whites recognized that the poll tax would inevitably impact poor white voters and fought against its passage. White laborers from Jacksonville submitted a petition to protest the poll tax. Other arguments ensued over details such as the amount of the tax and the number of years’ payments necessary. In a compromise that surprised all, the convention allowed for but refrained from imposing the poll tax in the revised constitution: the job of implementation was kicked down the road to the 1887 legislative session. A handful of black convention delegates agreed to the poll tax provision probably as a trade-off for stronger education guarantees  in the new constitution and confidence that the legislature would be similarly divided and not actually pass the law. (Brown, Florida’s Black Public Officials, p. 59).

Temporarily at least, the calculation of black delegates proved correct. The 1887 legislature again failed to unite on a single poll tax bill and the proposal fizzled. In the same session, however, the dominant Democrats passed another strict registration law which reduced black voting and also Florida’s first segregation law by mandating that railroads provide first-class railroad cars “for the separate and exclusive use of colored persons.”

The 1888 election proved to be the last time for decades that Florida’s blacks voted in significant numbers. On May 27, 1889, Governor Francis Fleming signed a poll tax law requiring that all males 21 and over pay an annual capitation tax of $1 for the two years preceding the election as a perquisite for voting (Ch. 3850 Sec. 1). The final clump of dirt tossed on the grave of black voting in Florida came in the same session when Jackson County’s William H. Milton Jr, grandson of Florida’s Confederate governor, introduced an “eight ballot box” measure (Ch. 3879, Sect. 25) which created a complicated voting scheme at polling stations with separate boxes for each office. Essentially a literacy test (that local white voting supervisors could easily help white voters maneuver), the new law targeted black voters who might have accumulated the cash to pay poll tax while keeping the receipts.

The impact of these two new laws on voting, particularly black voting, was catastrophic.  Applying regression analysis, J. Morgan Kousser has calculated that black turnout declined from 87% in 1884 to 62% in 1888 to 11% in 1892 to 5% in 1896 [Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics, p. 102].  White voting also diminished (from 86% in 1888 to 59% in 1892) as  state-wide turn out fell from 74% to 33% in one election cycle.  The 8 ballot box measure was abandoned in 1895 for the secret ballot but the damage had been inflicted.   Conservative whites, who, beginning with Reconstruction era violence in Jackson County, had sought to eliminate voting rights granted blacks in 1867, finally achieved their long, sought goal. The poll tax would continue in Florida until 1937.

[Image: from the Jacksonville Public Library:  http://jpl.coj.net/coll/aacoll/fdwight/fdwight_poll.html ]

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