Voter Intimidation in Virginia is Nothing New

Oct 24, 2016

The state has a long and complicated history of various forces trying to influence elections.

How did you vote in the last election? Are you keeping it a secret? You wouldn’t have been able to do that before the Civil War in Virginia, because voting was a public act, done in front of a crowd of your neighbors, and how you voted was recorded in the poll books. Bob Gibson is with UVA’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.  

“It was intimidating to vote in public, but people didn’t view it that way back then, apparently because it was such a communal activity. People were used to voting in front of their community. So they would walk in line up to the front of the courthouse, walk up a few steps and announce for whom they were voting." 

That ended as a condition of Virginia being readmitted to the Union after the Civil War, although the practice lingered in some places well into the 1890's. That’s when a new kind of intimidation emerged, says Stephen Farnsworth at the University of Mary Washington. 


“The main way that African-Americans were kept away from the polls historically has been through the use of the poll tax. This was a tax that one had to pay for almost a century after the Civil War if you wanted to vote." 

These days, voting is free and private, but it may not be as much fun for those who get to participate. Back when casting a ballot was public, candidates would bring liquor to the polls to persuade voters.