The right to vote in Virginia has been a hotly contested issue throughout the history of the state. Before the Civil War, the political leaders of influence were hesitant to accept universal white male suffrage, although it had been welcomed throughout much of the rest of the United States. The Virginia Constitution of 1851 eliminated the owning of property as a prerequisite for voting thereby granting the right to vote to thousands of white men.
After the Civil War, the general in command of the military district of which Virginia was a part ordered that African American men be permitted to vote in the October 1867 election of delegates to the state constitutional convention. The constitution that the convention prepared and that was ratified in 1869 granted African American men the right to vote. The ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution to the United States in 1870 prohibited all states from denying any man the right to vote because of his "race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
During the following decades white political leaders in Virginia and elsewhere in the South amended or replaced state constitutions, enacted new voting laws, and employed fraud, intimidation, and violence to make it difficult for African American men to vote. They created literacy tests in some states or permitted men to vote in the twentieth century if their fathers or grandfathers were qualified to vote in 1860, which disqualified all southern African Americans. That was known as the "grandfather clause," the United States Supreme Court twice ruled that technique unconstitutional, in 1915 and again in 1939.
The Virginia Constitution of 1902 permitted men to vote in the next election after it went into effect if they or their fathers were veterans of the Union or Confederate army, if they had paid $1 or more in taxes the previous year, or if they could explain satisfactorily any provision of the new constitution. Thereafter, the General Assembly required payment of a $1.50 poll tax for each of the three years preceding an election, created a complex registration process that permitted registrars to deny men the right to register if they answered questions about their qualifications unsatisfactorily, and placed control over registration and voting in the hands of officials that the General Assembly appointed, guaranteeing that Democrats who believed in white supremacy were in charge. That allowed Democratic Party election officials wide leeway to determine who could vote and made it difficult for poor or illiterate people to vote, unless they were known to be voting for a candidate acceptable to the Democrats. As a consequence, during the first half of the twentieth century Virginia had the lowest voting percentage of its adult white population of any state in the country, and the formidable political organization that Harry Flood Byrd directed easily remained in firm control of state and local governments for decades.
The poll tax was the centerpiece of Virginia's policy of restricting the suffrage, and all other former Confederate states employed it for the same purpose. The ratification on January 23, 1964, of the Twenty-fourth Amendment outlawed the poll tax as a prerequisite for voting in federal elections. The ruling of the Supreme Court and in the 1966 Virginia case Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections declared the poll tax an unconstitutional burden on voting rights, and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 also outlawed requiring prepayment of the poll tax as a qualification for voting.
This photograph shows both white and black Virginians waiting in line at a registrar's office in order to register to vote on September 29, 1964. Since the Twenty-fourth Amendment was ratified earlier that year, successful registrants would be able to vote in a presidential election for the first time, perhaps in their lives, without having to pay a poll tax.
1. What is a poll tax?
2. What is a grandfather clause?
3. What were the effects of the poll tax in Virginia?
1. What impact did disenfranchising thousands of white and black voters in Virginia have on the economic and social environment of the state? How did this compare to other states in the South and in the entire country?
2. How important was the repeal of the poll tax to the success of the civil rights movement? Why?
Buni, Andrew. The Negro in Virginia Politics, 1902–1965. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1967.
Holt, Wythe. Virginia's Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.
Knickrehm, Kay M., and Devin Bent. "Voting Rights, Voter Turnout, and Realignment: The Impact of the 1965 Voting Rights Act." Journal of Black Studies 18, no. 3 (1988): 283–296.