Who Can Vote in Virginia

Since 1619 the General Assembly has served as representative of the people, and since 1634 the political subdivisions known as counties have been structured so government decisions would be responsive to local concerns - and those were reflected by who could vote and who could serve in office.

The early Virginians had to own property in order to vote. That requirement was designed in large part to protect the property-owning upper class Virginia families from excessive taxes.

A small percentage of Virginians, the "gentry," controlled most wealth in the colonial era. If everyone had been allowed to vote, the gentry expected those without property would impose high taxes on land and slaves to redistribute the wealth and reduce income/asset inequality. By controlling the vote, the gentry blocked the count courts and General Assembly from adopting taxes that might .

The restrictions on voting also limited the ability of one very wealthy person to dominate county politics. Indentured servants who served their time often stayed with their former owner and farmed for wages or a percentage of the crop, until acquiring enough assets to move to the edge of settlement and purchase land there. The landless farmers, the indentured servants, and the slaves were all dependent upon the landowner, and he might control their votes and dominate local elections. Setting a threshold of property ownership before allowing someone to vote was a mechanism to ensure voters were independent, and a bloc controlled by one landowner would not have an excessive impact.

Virginia has never offered a political system where the poor could soak the rich. The Founding Fathers were, after all, among the wealthiest people in Virginia society. Those with property were those with the most to lose. One fancy mansion built by Thomas Lee family was torched by indentured servants, who may have been covering up evidence of theft or may have just been acting rebellious.

Slave revolts were the greatest fear, but lawlessness by indentured servants and poor farmers was a concern. There were several episodes during periods of low prices for tobacco, when plants in the fields of some plantations were destroyed before harvest.

Such tobacco "stinting" incidents failed to reduce the supply of tobacco enough to raise the export price for all farmers in Virginia, but certainly affected the wealth of the individuals whose crops was destroyed. (Remember, there was no police force in colonial Virginia, and patrols to intercept conspiracies that could lead to slave revolts were rare because of the cost.)

In the political arena, the gentry designed a system where a large number of indentured servants in a county could *not* control the vote - and thus potentially impose high taxes on land and slaves to fund expensive government services for the poor. That could have impoverished the rich property owners and drained the county treasury - after which, the poor might move on to another county, since most had few economic ties to the land in the local area.

The political system in Virginia has always been designed to encourage a responsible, long-term perspective... and restricting the privilege of voting to those who owned land helped ensure that the elected leaders were responsible. The restriction on voting has been eliminated, but the objective remains the same.

Today, the Federal government encourage home ownership. In addition to a variety of government plans subsidizing mortgage rates for veterans and low-income citizens in particular, the middle-income and the fabulously rich can take advantage of the mortgage interest rate deduction to minimize their income taxes. Flat tax advocates lose a great deal of their political support when they propose eliminating this mortgage deduction. In America today, two out of three families own their own home, and there's a solid bloc of voters who care about the long-term health of the local community... including the tax laws.

after the Civil War, the Republican-controlled US Congress required the former Confederate states to ratify the 15th Amendment providing former male slaves the right to vote, but Virginia used the poll tax and other rstrictions to limit the effectiveness of that mandate for over a century
after the Civil War, the Republican-controlled US Congress required the former Confederate states to ratify the 15th Amendment providing former male slaves the right to vote, but Virginia used the poll tax and other restrictions to limit the effectiveness of that mandate for over a century
Source: Architect of the Capitol, Lincoln's Second Inaugural, 1865

suffragists who protested at the White House were jailed and force-fed at the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, before women gained the right to vote in 1920 after ratification of the 19th Amendment
suffragists who protested at the White House were jailed and force-fed at the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, before women gained the right to vote in 1920 after ratification of the 19th Amendment
Source: Architect of the Capitol, Women's Suffrage Parade, 1917

Robert M. T. Hunter resigned from the US Senate and became Confederate Secretary of State, so the Underwood Constitution of 1869 would have blocked him from voting if the disenfranchisement clauses had been approved
Robert M. T. Hunter resigned from the US Senate and became Confederate Secretary of State, so the Underwood Constitution of 1869 would have blocked him from voting if the disenfranchisement clauses had been approved
Source: U.S. House of Representatives, Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter


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