Virginia’s Peculiar Relationship with Voting

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Many of us who have come to reside in Virginia over the past few decades may regard the state as essentially a progressive jurisdiction. But a brief historical retrospective illustrates how thoroughly Southern Virginia’s roots really are.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has an uncommon history with respect to its relationship with voting, constituencies, and electorates. At present, the state is poised to initiate a nonpartisan, independent commission to bring to an end a century-long romance with partisan gerrymandering, one of the most stubborn practices of political mischief.

The eyes of most high schoolers have glazed over the Constitution’s 3/5ths compromise but it’s likely that very few appreciated its actual enumerative consequences. The nation’s first census in 1790 counted 292,627 slaves (men, women, and children) in Virginia (39% of its total population of 747,610. The free white female constituency was 215,046, making the two cohorts 68% of the state’s total residents. But without a right to vote or otherwise participate in governance, the two were effectively spectral entities or zombies. Just 32% of the state’s populace could vote—free white males. 

The most potent effect of the three-fifths clause was to ensure a disproportionate representation in Congress for slave-states as well as to amplify their clout in the Electoral College. For example, Virginia’s zombie constituency in the census results increased Virginia’s House delegation from 10 to 19 in 1793 and a commensurate role in the Electoral College. In the first 36 years of the new federal government, the President was occupied by a slave-owning Virginian, except for the administration of John Adams. Jefferson, elected in 1801, was dubbed the “Negro President” because 12 of his electoral votes rested upon the compromise clause, which inflated the electoral count with slave constituencies.

In 1865, following a brutal civil war, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery and breathing some political life into a newly free group of persons. In 1870, the 15th Amendment granted suffrage to the former slaves, but women’s suffrage would not occur until 1920.

In 1868, under the leadership of John Underwood, a federal judge, a new constitution was drafted for Virginia and overwhelmingly adopted in 1870. Among other things, the right to vote was extended to all males 21 years of age. The constitutional convention rejected Underwood’s proposal to grant women’s suffrage. The ensuing three decades, however, witnessed a significant revival of racial antagonism, leading to the adoption of numerous Jim Crow laws designed to restrict or eliminate black voting and civil rights.

In 1902, a Virginia constitutional convention adopted a newer document, replete with Jim Crow provisions. Cognizant of the proscriptions of the 15th  Amendment, convention leaders proudly announced their intention “to cut from the existing electorate four fifths of the negro vote”, which “will be discrimination within the letter of the law.” Poll taxes, literacy tests, and personal interviews were among the tactics Virginia implemented to achieve that goal. Researchers have reported that in a few short years, the black electorate was reduced to 21,000 from 147,000, demonstrating the success of the measures.

Such suppressive efforts persisted—and persist today in some respects—for decades and received the imprimatur of many uber-conservatives such as William F. Buckley, who penned an editorial in his National Review [August 24, 1957] thus:

The central question that emerges—and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the rights of American citizens, born Equal—is  whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it Is the advanced race.

The Electoral College continues to haunt progress toward a more democratic republic. The results of the 2016 presidential election demonstrate that a clear margin of the popular vote was not sufficient to overtake an Electoral College victory. The contemporary distortion, however, is no longer due to zombie constituencies but to “winner take all rules.”

In 1964, the 20th  Amendment to the Constitution was adopted, banning poll taxes in federal elections. In 1966, SCOTUS ruled Virginia’s poll tax to be unconstitutional. It will likely surprise many that, just a few decades back, Virginia was still discriminating in voting. Over five decades later, the Commonwealth is on the verge of one further step in diminishing spectral constituencies.

Categories: Issues, Local, National

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