Disfranchisement (also called disenfranchisement) is the revocation of the right of suffrage. African American males voted in Virginia for the first time in October 1867, during Reconstruction (1865–1877), when the military governor of the state, John M. Schofield, ordered a referendum on whether to hold a convention to write a new state constitution and to elect delegates to serve in the convention. A majority of white Virginians disapproved of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1870, which prohibited states from denying the vote to any man because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Ensuring that Virginia elections were set up to express the public opinion rather than suppress it was a task that took decades to complete. It was not until the abolition of the poll tax in the 1960s and adoption of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 that black men and women registered and voted in appreciable numbers in Virginia outside a few urban precincts and that white men and women began to register and vote in significantly larger percentages than during the first half of the twentieth century.

Suffrage During Reconstruction

Virginia Constitutional Convention

Prior to the American Civil War (1861–1865), Virginia’s most influential political leaders had been reluctant to accept universal white male suffrage during the decades when it was more eagerly welcomed elsewhere in the United States. The state’s Constitutional Convention of 1829–1830 debated but declined 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. The Constitutional Convention of 1850–1851 eliminated the property qualification, but only after a contentious struggle.

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.

U.S. Senate Speech by William Mahone

The enfranchisement of thousands of white men in 1851 and of more thousands of black men beginning in 1867 was a revolutionary change in Virginia’s political culture. During the nearly thirty-five years between the Underwood Constitution and the conclusion of the state’s Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902, Democrats devoted to white supremacy reversed both of those revolutionary changes. In 1876 they amended the state constitution to make payment of the poll tax a prerequisite for voting, hoping to disfranchise some black voters. In 1879, a coalition of black voters, Republicans, and some Democrats gained control of the General Assembly. Known as Readjusters, they were pledged to reduce and refinance the state’s public debt. In 1882 the Readjusters amended the constitution to remove payment of the poll tax as a prerequisite to voting. That biracial coalition imposed a number of other significant reforms on the state, but nothing appeared so threatening to the men who opposed the Readjusters than a powerful alliance of Republicans, supported by federal patronage, with African Americans.

Post-Reconstruction Suffrage

William A. Anderson

In 1883 the Democrats regained control of both houses of the General Assembly and in 1884 passed the Anderson-McCormick Act, named for William A. Anderson, of Lexington, and J. Marshall McCormick, of Warren County. Its purpose was to complete the destruction of the Readjuster coalition. The law authorized the General Assembly, with its new Democratic majority, to appoint all members of electoral boards in all counties and cities. Those boards in turn appointed all local voter registrars, who kept separate lists of white and black men who were registered to vote. The boards also appointed three election judges in each precinct or ward, and those judges appointed clerks to compile the results. The Anderson-McCormick Act, in effect, gave to Democratic Party workers command of the registration of voters, the conduct of elections, and the compilation and reporting of the results.

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.

A. Caperton Braxton

William A. Anderson, of Lexington, an author of the Anderson-McCormick Act, served in the convention and was elected attorney general in 1901. He devoted much of his 1900 presidential address to the state bar association to the subject of how to disfranchise as many black men as possible without appearing to violate the Fifteenth Amendment. Allen Caperton Braxton, a Staunton attorney, won election to the convention and wrote dozens of letters to attorneys, judges, legislators, and members of disfranchisement conventions in other southern states seeking advice about how to achieve the elimination of black men from politics. Literacy tests, grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and combinations of election law changes all had the objective of depriving black men of the vote without explicitly depriving them of the vote because they were black, which the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited. Literacy tests were particularly controversial among Virginia Democrats because in some counties a significant number of white Democrats were illiterate, and some convention delegates were unwilling to disfranchise black men with a blunt instrument that would also disfranchise some white men. A number of influential Democratic delegates, however, were eager to reduce the number of poor and unlettered white voters, too. Instead of a literacy requirement, the convention created a flexible alternative called the “understanding clause.”

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.

Carter Glass

Carter Glass, of Lynchburg, who took charge of the drafting and passage of the suffrage article, explained to the Virginia state convention that it would “not necessarily deprive a single white man of the ballot, but will inevitably cut from the existing electorate four-fifths of the negro voters. That was the purpose of this Convention.” When Glass was asked whether the result would be achieved by fraud or discrimination, he indignantly replied, “By fraud, no: by discrimination, yes. But it will be a discrimination within the letter of the law, and not in violation of the law. Discrimination!” he continued even more insistently, as if suddenly realizing that the question implied that discrimination was a bad thing. “Why, that is precisely what we propose; that, exactly, is what the Convention was elected for—to discriminate to the very extremity of permissible action under the limitations of the Federal Constitution, with a view to elimination of every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.”

The Constitutional Convention. Help Save Our Public Schools.

Under the Constitution of 1902 and the enabling legislation that the General Assembly adopted, local judges appointed local election officials. The General Assembly, which had a Democratic majority for more than ninety years after the adoption of the constitution, selected all of the local judges. In effect, the new constitution continued to allow Democratic Party election officials to control who would be allowed to vote and made it financially difficult for poor people and very difficult for illiterate people to vote, unless they were known to be likely to vote for acceptable Democrats. Moreover, the General Assembly did not pass legislation allowing unsuccessful applicants for registration to appeal decisions of registrars to the courts.

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.”

Albert P. Gillespie

Republican delegate Albert P. Gillespie, the commonwealth’s attorney of Tazewell County, blasted the entire suffrage article for precisely those reasons. “I have been taught to believe,” he told the other delegates, “that where a man was guilty of a fraud, or of cheating another man, the man who committed the fraud should be punished. That a man who steals a vote should be punished. But what is the remedy suggested here? The remedy suggested here is to punish the man who has been injured … in other words, the negro vote of this Commonwealth must be destroyed to prevent Democratic officers from stealing their votes, for it seems that, as long as there is a negro vote to be stolen, there will be a Democratic election officer ready to steal it.”

Undemocratic Consequences

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.

County Poll Tax List

In 1905, Carter Glass’s Lynchburg News joyfully printed a report from Richmond that the disfranchisement article had worked as intended. Only about 21,000 black Virginians had registered in 1904 and fewer than half of them had qualified, down from 147,000 in 1900. Glass was wrong in his prediction about the effect of the suffrage article on white voters, however, as more white than black voters had probably been disfranchised in 1902. The poll tax was the only state or local tax that tax collectors did not attempt to collect. People who wanted to vote had to make a special effort to pay it and then had to know the procedures for registering to vote, two distinct steps involving visits to different local officials. Commissioners of revenue and registrars, almost all of them Democrats, closed their offices when Republicans or black people appeared to pay poll taxes or register, and registrars became notorious for asking irrelevant questions or questions without answers when Republicans or black people filled out their registration forms. Both political parties raised money, in some instances assessing public officials a percentage of their salaries, to pay poll taxes for men (and after 1920 for women) with reliable voting records.

Harry Flood Byrd Sr.

The elimination of such a large number of adult men from voting gave Virginia the dubious distinction of being the state with the smallest proportion of its adult population participating in elections. That in turn allowed a small group of like-minded political managers run first by Thomas Staples Martin, then by Harry F. Byrd and the Byrd Organization to dominate the state’s politics for more than sixty years, effectively preventing any constituency from arising to challenge their control of (and opposition to) economic or social reforms in Virginia. Advocates for increased public support for education, libraries, public health, and civil rights faced extreme difficulties in Virginia because their natural constituency was without the vote and therefore without any significant influence on public policy. The state’s few voters sent to Congress fewer supporters of the progressive reforms of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, or the Great Society than did any other southern state. In that respect, Virginia was not only out of step with much of the remainder of the country, it was also out of step with much of the remainder of the South.

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.”

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.
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.
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.
The Readjusters amend the Virginia constitution to remove payment of the poll tax as a prerequisite to voting.
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.
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.
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
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.
  • Holt, Wythe. Virginia’s Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902. New York, NY: Garland Publishing, 1990.
  • Poindexter, Harry Edward. “From Copy-Desk to Congress: The Pre-Congressional Career of Carter Glass.” Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Virginia, 1966.
  • Shibley, Ronald E. “Election Laws and Electoral Practices in Virginia, 1867–1902: An Administrative and Political History.” Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Virginia, 1972.
  • Tarter, Brent. A Saga of the New South: Race, Law, and Public Debt in Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016.
APA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. Disfranchisement. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/disfranchisement.
MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. "Disfranchisement" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 22 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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