Suffrage During Reconstruction
In accordance with federal Reconstruction legislation, General John M. Schofield called for a state constitutional convention, which met in Richmond from December 3, 1867, to April 17, 1868. In protest of black suffrage, however, many of Virginia's conservative whites refused to participate in the voting for delegates; as a result, Radical Republicans (those Republicans who not only favored the abolition of slavery but believed that freed slaves should have complete equality with white citizens), led by Judge John C. Underwood, dominated the convention, and the resulting constitution became known as the "Underwood Constitution." Judge Underwood had proposed to expand the right to vote to both black citizens and white women. Ultimately, Virginia's conservative whites who voted to ratify the new Virginia Constitution that included a clause allowing black men to vote did so under some duress. Conservative white acceptance of black voting was part of a compromise in 1869 that allowed Virginia's members of Congress to take their seats, thus ending congressional reconstruction in the state, and that removed restrictions on voting from former Confederates whose rights had been abridged since the end of the Civil War.
The law led to an increase in bribery, fraud, intimidation, violence, and corruption. In precincts with large numbers of Republican and African American voters, the Democratic officials could stuff ballot boxes, lose or destroy boxes or ballots, slow down voting so much that men were left standing in line when the polls closed, and employ other techniques to steal elections. A popular trick was for Democratic voters to bring ballots, or tickets, printed on tissue paper and deposit several ballots in the box at once. When the box was opened the judges would find more ballots than there were voters. Under the law, a blind-folded judge would then remove from the box enough ballots to make the numbers of voters and ballots equal; but because parties supplied their voters with tickets printed on various kinds of paper or in different sizes, a dexterous judge could easily remove mostly Republican ballots and allow Democratic candidates to win.
Election corruption became so prevalent that a decade later the General Assembly passed the Walton Act of 1894, named for state senator Morgan L. Walton, who represented Page and Shenandoah Counties. It required for the first time in Virginia that the state supply official ballots that listed all of the candidates. The so-called Australian ballot (named after where it originated) allowed secrecy in voting and prevented judges from removing only Republican ballots from overstuffed ballot boxes. The Walton Act nevertheless achieved the same purpose as the Anderson-McCormick Act, but by other means. It required that the voter draw a line through the name of every candidate he did not intend to vote for and specified very precisely how long the line should be. That enabled the Democrats who counted the votes to measure more precisely when inspecting ballots cast for Republican candidates than when inspecting ballots cast for Democratic candidates. The law forbade the exhibition of sample ballots before the election, effectively disfranchising blind or illiterate voters, although the law allowed the judges, who were all Democrats, to appoint special constables to assist blind or illiterate voters, who very likely could not tell whether the special constable marked the ballot as the voter desired.
By the 1890s, a large proportion of black men and thousands of white Republicans in eastern Virginia were effectively disfranchised. Democrats regularly won overwhelming control of the General Assembly and most of the state's congressional seats. During that decade, when the agrarian reform movement known as the Populist Movement threatened to rupture Democratic Party unity in Virginia, some Democrats employed the means by which they had contrived to win elections against Republicans to steal elections from other Democrats. The corruption led to enough demands for reform that a majority of the Democrats in the General Assembly passed a law in 1900 to hold a referendum on whether to summon a constitutional convention. A central objective of the supporters of the convention movement was to deprive African Americans of the suffrage and thereby eliminate the Democrats' need to cheat in order to win.
Stealing Votes: Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902
Eighty-eight Democrats and twelve Republicans (one calling himself an independent) met in Richmond in two sessions between June 12, 1901, and June 26, 1902, to "purify" the ballot box, as they termed their disfranchisement of the state's African Americans. The debates were long and protracted, not so much because of opposition among the Democrats to the end that they all sought, but because of serious disagreements about the methods to be employed. The Fifteenth Amendment stood in their way.
Article II of the Constitution of 1902 defined requirements for the suffrage in two parts. For elections held between 1902 and 1904, the constitution allowed every male citizen aged twenty-one or older to register and vote who had served or was the son of any man who had served in the army or navy of the United States or of the Confederate States; who paid at least one dollar in property tax; and who could read and explain, or explain having heard read, any section of the constitution. Beginning in 1904, under enabling legislation that the General Assembly enacted that year, the right to vote was restricted to men who had paid a poll tax of $1.50 for each of the three preceding years (Civil War veterans of both sides were exempt from the poll tax), who made application to the registrar unassisted and in their own handwriting, and who provided satisfactory answers to any questions that the registrar asked, presumably questions about the applicants' qualifications to register.
During debate on the "understanding clause," delegate Alfred P. Thom, of Norfolk, correctly predicted how it would operate. "I do not expect an understanding clause to be administered with any degree of friendship by the white man to the suffrage of the black man," he explained. "I would not expect an impartial administration of the clause. I would not expect for the white man a rigid examination. The people of Virginia do not stand impartially between the suffrage of the white man and the suffrage of the black man … By purging your electorate and making it, to all intents and purposes, an Anglo-Saxon electorate, you liberate the honest heart of the people of Virginia to demand honesty in elections."
Not long after the convention adjourned, Walter A. Watson, a delegate from Nottoway County, registered to vote, submitting to be examined under the understanding clause rather than qualifying as he could have as the son of a Confederate veteran. He did so in order to set an example that would dissuade poor and poorly educated people from even attempting to register. Registration and voting dropped precipitately following the proclamation of the Constitution of 1902. In the 1900 presidential election, 264,240 Virginia men voted; in 1904 a mere 135,865 did, a reduction in the whole number of votes of 48.6 percent. The Republican vote fell from 43.8 percent to 35.2 percent of the total. The number of white voters declined by about 50 percent, and the number of black votes declined by about 90 percent and remained insignificantly small in all but a few communities until the mid-1960s.
As Douglas Southall Freeman, editor of the Richmond News Leader, wrote in 1924, "voting has become a highly technical procedure which was designed to prevent and not to record the expression of public opinion … In a democracy it is essential that voting be simplified to the last degree. By this test Virginians may be Democratic, but Virginia is not a democracy."
1829–1830 - During a Virginia constitutional convention, delegates debate but decline to adopt a proposal that ownership of land no longer be a prerequisite for voting rights, continuing restriction of the electorate to one class of adult white men.
1850–1851 - After a contentious struggle, delegates at the Virginia constitutional convention eliminate the property qualification for the right to vote, which means that all white male residents of Virginia can now vote.
February 3, 1870 - The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting African American men the right to vote, is ratified.
1876 - Democrats devoted to white supremacy amend the state constitution to make payment of the poll tax a prerequisite for voting, hoping to disfranchise some black voters.
1882 - The Readjusters amend the Virginia constitution to remove payment of the poll tax as a prerequisite to voting.
1884 - Democrats, in control of both houses of the General Assembly, pass the Anderson-McCormick Act, giving Democratic Party workers command of the registration of voters, the conduct of elections, and the compilation and reporting of the results.
1894 - The General Assembly passes the Walton Act, which requires for the first time in Virginia that the state supply official ballots that list all of the candidates.
1904 - A mere 135,865 men vote in the U.S. presidential election, 48.6 percent less than the number of votes cast in the 1900 election. The Republican vote falls from 43.8 percent to 35.2 percent of the total. The number of white voters declines by about 50 percent, and the number of black votes declines by about 90 percent.
January 23, 1964 - The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified, guaranteeing that the right to vote in any federal election "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax."
August 6, 1965 - U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, guaranteeing that no person shall be denied the right to vote based on race or color. Several special provisions impose even more stringent requirements in certain jurisdictions throughout the country, including Virginia.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Tarter, B. Disfranchisement. (2014, July 2). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Disfranchisement.
- MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. "Disfranchisement." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2 Jul. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: September 17, 2009 | Last modified: July 2, 2014
Contributed by Brent Tarter, founding editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography.