The delayed rectifier K+ channel of the squid axon undergoes a series of modifications in its kinetic and conductive parameters when it is phosphorylated as the result of shifts in its voltage-dependent parameters. These effects can be interpreted as due to electrostatic interaction between the voltage sensor of the channel and the transferred phosphate from ATP. Using different concentrations of intracellular Mg2+, we determined the density of surface charges seen by the K+ channel voltage sensor before and after phosphorylation. Values for the surface charge density in the cytoplasmic side of the membrane were between 1/350 and 1/250 e-/A2 in the absence of ATP and between 1/160 and 1/155 e-/A2 under phosphorylating conditions. Incorporation of a surface potential into a kinetic model for the delayed rectifier channel can predict quantitatively phosphorylation-like changes in K+ currents. These results provide evidence for the importance of electrostatic interactions as one of the mechanisms by which phosphorylation modulates the behavior of voltage-dependent channels.