In 1944 during World War II, the General Assembly tried to make it easier for members of the armed forces to vote. The US Congress eliminated the requirement for military personnel to pay poll taxes before voting in Federal elections.
In Virginia, the state legislators passed laws creating the "Armed service poll tax fund" to pay the poll taxes for military personnel so they could vote in state/local elections.
The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals voided the legislation, declaring it unconstitutional for the state to pay the poll taxes directly. The 1902 state constitution required that poll taxes be paid personally, even if those funds had been provided by someone else. That requirement was designed to prevent any group from pre-paying the poll tax and then arranging for them to vote for a particular candidate. In particular, the provision limited the opportunity for a non-Virginia organization to facilitate the registration of black men in order to elect a Republican candidate.
When proposing amendments in 1928, the General Assembly had considered exempting veterans of World War I from the payment of poll taxes, but did not adopt the change. The legislators also sought to loosen the voter registration requirements in 1944, by allowing Virginians serving in the military to be "interviewed" and qualified by an officer.
The 1902 constitution had been designed to allow local election officials to disqualify voters thought unlikely to support the Democratic Party, especially men of color. One provision was a requirement for potential voters after 1904 to be interviewed in person before being added to the voting rolls. If the potential voter failed to answer qualifying questions to the satisfaction of the registrar, including questions designed to be too hard to answer, then the registrar could use his personal judgment and reject the applicant. Though absentee voting was legal, in-person registration with an interview was required.
In the same Staples v. Gilmer case, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that the revision of voter registration requirements was inconsistent with the state constitution:1
The legislators then tried to use a different technique to authorize men and women serving in the military to vote in the August 1945 primaries for the Democratic candidates, including the race for governor. At the time, winning the Democratic Party primary was tantamount to winning election in November.
There was not enough time in 1945 for the General Assembly to go through the constitutional amendment process. There was a faster way to modify the constitution, but the legislators did not want to call for a general constitutional convention that would have the authority to totally rewrite the constitution.
It had been updated significantly via amendments in 1928 and the changes satisfied the Byrd Organization. In addition, a general convention would be expensive. To minimize costs in 1928, Governor Byrd had used a committee rather than a convention to prepare amendments. Committee proposals were then adopted by two sessions of the General Assembly and approved by the voters, so public involvement was maintained but costs to prepare the amendments were minimized.
The solution that ensured a speedy revision while minimizing costs was to ask the voters to approve a limited convention, one with a restricted agenda limited to just how members of the armed forces could be allowed to vote. Holding a limited vs. general constitutional convention was a new approach. The Byrd Organization chose it, because its leaders did not want to create any opportunity for eliminating the poll tax and loosening registration requirements for *all* voters. The authorization for a limited convention specifically stated:2
The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled in a 6-1 decision that the 1945 constitutional convention could be constrained in its authority, and that any actions exceeding that authority would be illegal. In his dissent, the Chief Justice described the limitations on the powers of a constitutional convention as expedient rather than legal. The Chief Justice had been a member of the convention which drafted the 1902 constitution, and noted that it had specifically rejected a proposal to allow the General Assembly to authorize restricted conventions.
The referendum for a limited convention was approved in a special election on March 6, 1945. The convention delegates proclaimed a revised constitution on May 2, 1945. As provided in the General Assembly's "Informatory Statement" that accompanied the referendum for a limited convention, which the voters had approved, there was no statewide vote to ratify the amendment to the state constitution.3