Voting in Virginia: Then and now

Taking a closer look at voting in Virginia over the last century.
Published: Jun. 21, 2022 at 8:06 AM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - The 15th amendment: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Though intended to increase access to the ballot box, every state interpreted it in its own way.

“They will ask you certain questions, others had where you had to pay to vote, there is the poll tax, a dollar or two dollars . Many of these farmers were tenant farmers or share croppers, they could not afford the dollar or two dollars at that time, that was a lot of money for them,” historian George Norris explained,

Virginia, often setting the standard.

“Virginia was seen as a bastion of white supremacy oftentimes. Many of the southern states would follow their example about voter suppression and the way they treated immigrants and native Americans and so forth,” Norris explained.

“Just for the reverence of the ancestors, you should go out and do something that they couldn’t do,” Andrea Jackson said.

Jackson is a local activist from Waynesboro who has volunteered for numerous elections, campaigns and registered many people to vote. She says it doesn’t matter who you vote for, there is strength in numbers.

“Your one vote is not going to change anything,” Jackson said. “When you put your vote, your friends vote, your neighbors vote, the person across the town, the other towns vote together, it really makes a difference.”

Recently restored African American voter records show the history of voter suppression in Virginia.

There were literacy tests, poll taxes, and other ways to try and control who could vote. This continued for decades, then came the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“You have to prove that the law would not have a disparate impact. It would not be motivated by discrimination against people of color. That acted as a huge deterrent to states passing and changing their voting laws so frequently,” Bertrall Ross said.

Ross is a professor at The University of Virginia School of Law. He says once the Supreme Court struck down an important provision of the voting rights act in 2013, things started to change.

“It opened the door to states changing their voting laws whenever they wanted to without obtaining preapproval from the federal government. What we have seen over the past 8 years is constant changes to voting laws,” Ross explained.

According to nonpartisan experts at the Brennan Center for Justice, this year Virginia lawmakers introduced 34 bills that could make it more difficult to vote, yet nearly did not survive.

“It was really concerning to see that these longtime policies in the state were up for repeal, not even changing or limiting but completely up for repeal. Longtime election policies that have protected voters made voting more accessible to more voters,” Jasleen Singh with the Brennan Center explained.

“Right now I would give Virginia, a solid A- in terms of access to voting. There is still a felon disenfranchisement law that permanently disenfranchises persons that have felony convictions. You still have to reach out to the governor to get your right to vote back. I think that is negative. In terms of access to voting [it] has really improved throughout the state,” Ross explained. “I just worry about us going backward in the other direction.”

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