Column: History Repeating Itself

Column: History Repeating Itself

This week I complete teaching a six-week course for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at George Mason University on "highlights of Virginia’s history." I have been meeting with more than 80 students at the JoAnne Rose Gallery in Reston. All are retired and enjoy learning for the sake of learning. Only a few were born in Virginia, but most have lived here for a very long time. They want to know more about how the way things are in Virginia got to be that way, especially in instances where Virginia is so different from other states.

My lecture last week dealt with Virginia in the twentieth century and its dominant figure, Governor and then Senator Harry F. Byrd. Even before Byrd held elective office the direction of the Commonwealth was set. A new state Constitution written in a convention in 1902 was proclaimed to be in effect without a ratification vote by the people. In a highly questionable legal move, the new constitution was not put to a vote probably out of fear that it would not be approved because its provisions related to voter registration were so harsh that they disenfranchised half the then-existing voters. To register to vote under the new constitution one had to pass a literacy test of questions posed by the local voting registrar. The color of your skin determined more than any factor the kind of questions you were posed. To vote, one needed to have paid his poll tax of $1.50 (a lot of money at the time) three years in a row, six months before the election.

The results of the new voting requirements were that the voting rolls were cut in half with few African Americans able to vote. I am sure that those who were in the dominant Democratic Party at the time rationalized the new requirements by saying that they only wanted knowledgeable people to vote and people who had invested in the government through paying their taxes to vote. They no doubt made speeches as to how Virginia would have better government as a result. What did happen was that the limited and controllable electorate allowed Harry Byrd to set up a political machine that dominated Virginia’s government until the 1960s. The Byrd Machine brought the Commonwealth poor schools, underfunded mental health and social programs, and limited state infrastructure. Finally through federal court action and the federal Voting Rights Act the shackles on Virginia voters were broken in the late 1960s and more enlightened leadership emerged to lead the state.

Now there is a nationwide effort in the states among Republicans to suppress voter participation. It’s rationalized as ending voter fraud and abuses that have never been shown to exist. It may keep enough people from voting to determine the outcome. It could set up another election like 2000 with Virginia being at the center of the dispute. Governor McDonnell has such a bill on his desk for signature that would have the effect of suppressing likely Democratic voters. Join me in writing to him and asking him to veto it. We do not need this sordid bit of history to repeat itself.