A little History here of how Poll Taxes and Literacy tests were utilized during Jim Crow to disenfranchise black people –
In 1890, Southern states began to adopt explicit literacy tests to disenfranchise voters. This had a large differential racial impact, since 40-60% of blacks were illiterate, compared to 8-18% of whites. Poor, illiterate whites opposed the tests, realizing that they too would be disenfranchised. To placate them, Southern states adopted an “understanding clause” or a “grandfather clause,” which entitled voters who could not pass the literacy test to vote, provided they could demonstrate their understanding of the meaning of a passage in the constitution to the satisfaction of the registrar, or were or were descended from someone eligible to vote in 1867, the year before blacks attained the franchise. Discriminatory administration ensured that blacks would not be eligible to vote through the understanding clause.
Georgia initiated the poll tax in 1871, and made it cumulative in 1877 (requiring citizens to pay all back taxes before being permitted to vote). Every former confederate state followed its lead by 1904. Although these taxes of $1-$2 per year may seem small, it was beyond the reach of many poor black and white sharecroppers, who rarely dealt in cash. The Georgia poll tax probably reduced overall turnout by 16-28%, and black turnout in half (Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics, 67-8). The purpose of the tax was plainly to disenfranchise, not to collect revenue, since no state brought prosecutions against any individual for failure to pay the tax.
Racially disparate charging and sentencing has had the effect of disenfranchising millions of black people – enabling Republicans to remove millions of Democrat voters from the roles. It would seem that the new Governor of Virginia wants to keep them from voting…
Virginia’s slide toward extreme conservative governance under Gov. Bob McDonnell continues.
McDonnell wants to change the process by which non-violent felons apply to have their voting rights restored, the Washington Post reported over the weekend. Whereas before, applicants had had to fill out a one-page form, making the process almost automatic, they now will have to submit an essay outlining their contributions to society since their release.
Advocates for the poor say this will result in far fewer people having their rights restored. Kent Willis, an ACLU official in Virginia called the essay requirement “a nearly insurmountable obstacle” for people with a limited education. And he added that many felons would be intimidated, reducing the number of applicants.
The Secretary of the Commonwealth, Janet Polarek, whose office handles the applications, told the Washington Post that the new system “gives all applicants the opportunity to have their cases heard and have their full stories told,”
But the move has provoked an outcry. The Virginia Black Legislative Caucus called the move “a horrific step back towards the era of Jim Crow.” One member of the caucus told the Post: “This is designed to suppress the rights of poor people.”
Democratic state legislators charged that McDonnell “is returning to a ‘blank sheet’ voter registration system that in the past disenfranchised many African American voters.” The state Democratic Party also condemned the move, though it didn’t dare make a moral case on behalf of felons, instead arguing that the new system would “bury the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office in unnecessary paperwork.”
About 300,000 felons in the state have served their time, but still do not have the right to vote. Only Virginia and Kentucky make felons apply to the governor to restore their voting rights.
This is by no means the first sign that McDonnell, who took over as governor in January, intends to move Virginia in a conservative direction. In February, McDonnell rolled back discrimination protections for gay state workers. And he recently declared April Confederate History Month, in a proclamation that at first made no mention of slavery.