An Overview of the Poll Tax in Wyoming

The poll tax was an integral part of Wyoming since the territory’s inception.  The Territorial Legislature required counties to impose a poll tax of two dollars ($25.94 in 2015) for each adult.  Initially, it applied only to individuals over the age 21.  In 1873, the territorial legislature limited it to individuals between the ages of 21 and 50.   Later, firemen and their wives and veterans were exempted from the poll tax.

Money raised from this tax was delegated to funding schools.  This provision would be incorporated into the state constitution.  In 1909, a new statute allowed county commissioners’ could institute a special poll tax to pay for roads.

The (WSA Session Laws of Wyoming, 1873)

The statute passed by the 1873 State Legislature limited those responsible for the poll tax to citizens over the age of 21. It did not specify what the money raised would be used. The only penalty for non-payment was a seizure and sale of property to pay the tax by the sheriff or collection agent. It does not appear that non-payment threatened the individual’s access to the polls on voting day.
(WSA Session Laws of Wyoming, 1873)

The poll tax seems to have elicited little discussion in Wyoming circles. Elsewhere, it was a serious matter.   In many states, particularly in the South, failure to pay one’s poll tax resulted in the loss of voting rights.  In Wyoming, failure to pay a poll tax put an individual on a delinquent list.  If still unpaid after a period of time, a person’s property could be seized and sold or wages garnished.

Legislation already defined in broad terms, who could and who could not vote.  Moreover, there is no connection between paying a poll tax and the right to vote.  It seems that the only connection between poll taxes and voting was that poll tax records were used to compile a list of qualified voters.  

In 1890, the state legislature passed legislation that made it unnecessary for individuals to pay their poll tax in order to vote.  One can only guess at the legislature’s generosity.  Maybe they saw this as a way to push the process of statehood forward.  We may never know the true reason.

Telegraph from ___ to Governor Hansen  (WSA RG0001.36, Hansen gubernatorial records)

Telegraph from US Senate leadership to Governor Hansen urging him to ask the State Legislature to discuss ratification.
(WSA RG0001.36, Hansen gubernatorial records)

In 1962, Congress passed a resolution to amend the US Constitution by barring the poll tax as a requirement for voting in federal elections.  In January 1963 Sen. Gale McGee fervently encouraged Governor Clifford Hansen to get Wyoming to support the amendment.  McGee believed that “it would be in the interest of our State to have the legislature consider the proposal during its present session . . .”   Two months later, US Senators Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen also strongly urged Governor Hansen to should push the Wyoming legislature to support the amendment.  In their cable they stated that  “The strength and vitality of our democratic processes rests upon every qualified citizen expressing his views through the ballot – surely in this day, those otherwise qualified to vote should not be prevented from doing so by the anachronistic device of a poll tax.”    

Letter from Sen. McGee to Governor Hansen. (WSA RG0001.36, Hansen gubernatorial records)

Letter from Sen. McGee to Governor Hansen personally urging consideration of the amendment in the State Legislature.
(WSA RG0001.36, Hansen gubernatorial records)

Governor Hansen did not share any of the senators’ enthusiasm.  Moreover, even if the political logic seemed to have little effect on him, the matter was poorly timed.  At the time of McGee’s letter, the legislature was already in mid-session.   Hansen acknowledged Magee’s letter and in a dry, dispassionate terms that he had sent a memorandum to the speaker of the House and the President of the Senate to “take whatever action they deem advisable.”  After the legislative session had concluded, he stonily reported that no action had been taken by either chamber.  

Letter from Governor Hansen. (WSA RG0001.36, Hansen gubernatorial records)

Response from Governor Hansen to Senator Gale McGee.
(WSA RG0001.36, Hansen gubernatorial records)

With the legislative session concluded, the only possibility was a special session, but it did not seem practical to do so.  Unlike his Washington colleagues, Hansen was not inspired by the amendment to take any further action.  

In the meantime, between January and March 1963, 29 states ratified the amendment.  Between March 1963 and January 1964, 9 additional states ratified the measure and it became officially adopted into the US Constitution.  Wyoming is one of 8 states, most in the South, that did not ratify the 24th amendment.  

Wyoming is one of only a handfull of states that did not ratify the 24th Amendment. (map from Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:24th_amendment_ratification.svg)

Wyoming is one of only eight states that have never ratified the 24th Amendment.
(map from Wikimedia Commons)

To its credit, the Wyoming legislature was not totally oblivious.  From 1957 to 1963, several house members called for repealing the poll tax provision from the state constitution but the issue failed to get the support of the majority of the house members.  

Finally in 1967, both chambers agreed to endorse the idea, and the proposed constitutional change was strongly approved at the general election in November 1968.  The following year, the legislature repealed the poll tax statutes.

— Carl Hallberg, Reference Archivist

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