On this day in 1894, the General Assembly narrowly passed the Walton Act. It mandated what was known as the “Australian ballot,” or a uniform ballot issued by the state and not a political party … Pause right there. Not until 1894 were the ballots in Virginia a) uniform; and b) issued by the state. I imagine a Democratic Party ballot with a giant arrow pointing to its candidate, whose name is boldfaced and larger than his opponent’s.
Uniform, state-issued ballots weren’t the half of it, though. The Walton Act also instituted secret voting. Until 1894, your vote in each election was on record and, as often as not, made known to your neighbors and colleagues even as you registered it. This allowed interest groups to more easily intimidate voters, but it also theoretically made such attempts more obvious. And the New York Times, for one, was worried that secret voting would lead to a different kind of corruption.
Referring to the Walton Act, the paper wrote: “Its most effective, as well, possibly, as its most repugnant, feature is that providing for the appointment of a special constable. This officer is practically the ballot reader for the physically disqualified and the illiterate. It is within his power to disqualify or neutralize the votes of as many of the latter class as he may see fit.”
How to solve this problem? Virginia politicians called for a Constitutional Convention that convened in 1901 and basically just disqualified all those folks—the illiterate, the too poor, the African American—right from the start.
IMAGE: A line of voters in Arlington County on November 4, 1924 (Shorpy)