Capitation or poll taxes have never occupied a place of importance in Federal revenue systems, yet they have played a role of more or less importance in some of the states and minor political divisions. Their importance is waning, however, and consequently this source of revenue warrants but a brief discussion. In the early history of many countries poll taxes occupied the place of primary importance in fiscal systems. The injustice which comes from a uniform assessment upon individuals was soon felt, and the tax, while still often designated as the poll tax, was graduated according to property, personal rank, or some other such evidence of ability to meet burdens. In many cases the poll tax has gradually developed into other forms of taxes where an attempt is made to levy in accordance with the ability to pay. In a few foreign countries, however, the tax is still assessed at a definite amount per capita.
In American States. - The most extensive use of the poll tax has been in the American states. At the beginning of the present century its use was still found in about half of these commonwealths. Its retention is most general in the Southern and some of the New England states. Its use was extensive in the Colonies, and frequently the entire amount of revenue was collected from this source. Gradually, however, its importance as a source of revenue was replaced by other taxes, yet the payment of the poll tax was often retained as a prerequisite of certain political privileges, usually the right of suffrage. The fiscal imEXCISE, CAPITATION, AND BUSINESS TAXES 223 portance of the tax throughout its history has been small, while frequently great importance has been attached to the other aspects.
Objections to Poll Tax. - The poll tax is the source of much corruption and little revenue in the states where it is still retained. In many of the Southern states the payment of the poll tax has been made a prerequisite to suffrage, with the express intention of limiting the number of voters. This purpose often has been worse than frustrated by unscrupulous politicians, who make a practice of paying the tax in return for the support of the voter. It was the development of this practice which led many of the New England states to give up this qualification for suffrage.
In most states and localities where the tax is retained as a fiscal measure, it is unproductive of revenue because no attempt is made to administer it. The amount of the tax is so small that, where it cannot be assessed and collected in connection with property, the administrative expense proves to be a greater item than the amount of the tax itself. It is, therefore, easy to explain the general reports from the various officials that no attempt has been made to collect the tax, or that the returns from this source have been insignificant.
Where the tax is levied by local governmental units it is usually for some specific purpose, such as schools or roads. The old payment of services is still exacted in some quarters in the form of requiring every male citizen between certain ages to execute a given number of days' labor on the highways. The results are usually not satisfactory, and the plan is gradually going into discard, while the highways are kept up by expenditures from the general tax fund.
The outstanding objections to the modern use of the poll tax do not justify its retention to anything like the extent it is still found in the American commonwealths. It never has been, and never will be, a form of taxation which is popular with the citizenship of a country, consequently an extensive evasion may be expected. To be a general tax, the amount of the levy must be small, and because of the administrative expense involved, a thorough collection cannot be expected. The use of the tax as a political prerogative has been the source of so much corruption as to leave nothing to be said in its favor. From the fiscal, political, and ethical points of view, therefore, the poll tax is doomed, and its retention often can be explained only because of the selfish designs of political parties.