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Ken Plum: Repeat of a sordid history

The Virginia General Assembly may be about to repeat an unfortunate chapter of its history by passing bills that will have the effect of suppressing voter participation.  Although the bills are justified by the proponents as preventing voter fraud, no examples of voter wrongdoing have been shown.

At the turn of the 20th century Virginians were in the throes of fierce political upheaval.  While the Civil War had ended decades before, fallout from Reconstruction and shifts in control of state government were still being felt.  A new state constitution was intended to renew order to a state that had been accustomed to being governed by an aristocracy.  That order was achieved by the imposition of a number of voter suppression measures that cut the state’s voter registration list in half and led to the state having one of the lowest rates of voter participation in the country.

The blank sheet voter registration system that was described as a literary test required voters to list on a blank sheet of paper seven pieces of information in the order required in the state constitution.  The system stumped many well-educated people.  The poll tax kept some poor people from voting because they did not have the $1.50, but an even greater barrier to voting was the requirement that the tax be paid at least six months before the election for at least three years in a row.  These measures along with intimidation effectively kept black citizens from voting and enabled the white Democratic Byrd machine to dominate Virginia government for more than a third of a century.

It took federal intervention through the courts and the Voting Rights Act to get rid of these discriminatory practices in Virginia and other southern states.

The current bills before the legislature are not as blatant as those of the past, but they have a clear intent of making it more difficult to vote.  Photo identification at the polling place may seem reasonable but for many creates a real challenge.  Ironically, voter registration cards under some bills would not be adequate identification at the polls.  Proof of citizenship is also required in some bills.  Older Virginians, the poor, and new citizens will be those most disadvantaged.  Such efforts at voter suppression are underway in many other states as a run-up to the presidential election this November.

Election campaigns need to be won on the merits of the issues and the strengths of the candidates – not through a manipulation of the electoral process.  I will be voting against all the voter suppression bills and encouraging my colleagues to do the same.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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