Poll tax

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Poll Tax, also called capitation, refers to a tax collected equally for all people.

In the United Kingdom, "Poll Tax" commonly refers to two taxes levied by John of Gaunt and Margaret Thatcher, respectively. See the United Kingdom section below for more information.

The word poll is an English word that also means "head".

United States

The United States Constitution, Article 1, section 9, prohibits Congress from laying capitation taxes or other direct taxes. (The Sixteenth Amendment allows the Federal government to tax income.) However, some states used poll taxes and literacy tests to determine eligibility for suffrage, circumventing the Fifteenth Amendment with a "grandfather clause" that allowed any adult male whose father or grandfather voted to vote. The Twenty-fourth Amendment ended this process.


United Kingdom

John of Gaunt, the regent of Richard II, levied his poll tax in 1381 to finance the war against France that was in progress. Each person aged over 15 was required to pay the amount of one shilling, which was a large amount then. This provoked the Peasant's Revolt, due in part to attempts to restore feudal conditions in rural areas.

Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990, decided to replace the rating system of local taxes (based on the value of a house) with Community Charge (based on each adult resident in a house). The bill for the Community Charge was passed in 1988 and the new tax was phased into use in 1989.

This became known as the Poll Tax due to people becoming suspicious (correctly, as events transpired) that the Electoral register would be used to find people for the purposes of collecting this tax. A large number of people were estimated to have disappeared from the electoral roll, and avoided re-registration, because of this tax.

It was thought to be unfair as the tax burden shifted from the estimated price of a house to the number of people living in it, with the perceived effect of shifting the tax burden from the rich to the poor. It did not help that Margaret Thatcher chose to champion the Poll tax herself and apparently chose to be both ruthless in imposing it and adamant that there would be no "U-turns" (reversals in policy).

Poll tax was bitterly opposed and people sought to protest through mass protests and through not paying it so they would be prosecuted in a manner close to Gandhi's Passive Resistance.

However as the Poll tax began to rise, and enforcement measures became increasingly draconian, unrest mounted and culminated in a number of riots. The most serious of these happened in London on March 31 1990, and started during a protest at Trafalgar Square, London, which 300,000 protestors had attended.

It was becoming obvious that Thatcher had to go and she resigned on November 22 1990, after a leadership challenge showed that her position within the Conservative party had been undermined, and her position had become untenable.

In 1992 John Major replaced Poll Tax with "Council tax", a system that strongly resembled the rating system.

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