Voting Requirements of the Constitution of Virginia, 1902
This broadside lists the requirements that the Virginia Constitution of 1902 imposed on men who wished to register to vote. As in most of the other southern states, many white men in Virginia were intent on reducing the number of African American men who voted and held public office, and they had engaged in violence, intimidation, and corruption to prevent African Americans and Republicans from voting or winning elections during the 1880s and 1890s. In 1901 the General Assembly authorized a convention to draft a new constitution that would, among other things, restrict the vote to white men without violating the terms of the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited states from denying the vote to any man because of his "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The Constitution of 1902 disenfranchised about 90 percent of the black men who still voted at the beginning of the twentieth century and nearly half of the white men. The number of eligible African American voters fell from about 147,000 in 1901 to about 10,000 by 1905.
For the first elections to be held in 1902 and 1903 Civil War veterans and their adult sons and property owners who had paid at least $1 in property taxes during the previous year or who could give a reasonable explanation of any portion of the new state constitution were allowed to register and vote. After that, the article created an administrative structure and allowed the legislature to pass enabling laws designed to make it difficult or impossible for the average Virginian, black or white, to register to vote. The constitution required payment of a poll tax of $1.50 for each of three years preceding an election, meaning the effective exclusion from the ballot box of many poor black and poor white men. It also required each man who wished to vote to seek out a registrar and go through a complex process of registration and examination without any guidance from the registrar, giving the registrar an extraordinary amount of power to determine a man's eligibility to vote. The constitution also created electoral boards to oversee the conduct of elections and the certification of election returns. All of those officers except the locally elected collector of the poll tax were appointees of the local judge who in turn was elected by the General Assembly in which Democrats of white-supremacy beliefs had and expected to retain a more-than-comfortable majority.
Virginia's poll tax remained in effect until the 1960s, when federal court decisions, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made it illegal to deny the right to vote to any person who failed to pay the poll tax.
The 1902 Constitution also required racial segregation in public schools. Fearful that voters who would be disenfranchised by the new constitution would vote against ratification, the convention proclaimed the constitution in effect as of July 10, 1902. It remained in effect until 1971, far longer than any other constitution of Virginia.
1. Who was allowed to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment?
2. What was the ultimate goal of the 1902 Virginia Constitution?
3. Were there any exceptions for voter registration under the 1902 Constitution?
1. Compare the restrictions and the roadblocks to black voting with tools employed by other southern states. How did Virginia's efforts compare?
2. Discuss the connection between voting rights and civil rights. Use examples from the Reconstruction era and the Civil Rights era to examine their impact on the franchise throughout Virginia's and America's history.
3. Compare the 1902 Virginia Constitution with the "First Virginia Constitution, June 29, 1776." Can you perceive differences in the framer's intentions?
Holt, Wythe W., Jr. "The Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902: A Reform Movement Which Lacked Substance." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 76, no. 1 (January, 1968) 67–102.
Dinan, John J. The Virginia State Constitution: A Reference Guide. New York: Greenwood Publishing Co., 2006.
Pulley, Raymond H. Old Virginia Restored: An Interpretation of the Progressive Impulse, 1870–1930. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1968, 66–91.