From a "Museum of Democracy" to a Two-Party System in Virginia: the End of the Byrd Machine

voting after repeal of the poll tax
voting after repeal of the poll tax
Source: Library of Congress, The Poll Tax: Twenty-Fourth Amendment Ratified

Virginia prided itself on "honest government" throughout the Byrd Machine days, but it was far from representative. V.O Keys described the state as a "museum of democracy," with all the trappings of representative government but none of the dynamic change that reflected the will of the people.1

The basic structure of government was not fair to minorities, women, urban residents, or Republicans. Though the system was designed to use power to disenfranchise key groups and concentrate power in just the hands of just a few white men, personal graft by state officials was not routine. Kickbacks on government contracts were unusual, in contrast to the Democratic machines in Chicago, New York, Boston, etc.

Restriction of suffrage was traditional. Virginia established a pattern of electing members to a General Assembly in 1619, but the right to vote was limited to those who wned a certain amount of property. Black men could not vote until the 15th Amendment was passed after the Civil War, and no women could vote until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.

The clearest examples of dishonest vote-counting occurred after the Civil War. The blacks were enfranchised during Reconstruction, but by the time of the 1902 Constitution most were blocked from exercising an independent right to vote.2

There was a two-party democracy in Virginia during the 1830's and 1840's as the Whigs contested with the Democrats, and after the Civil War as the Readjusters and Conservatives contested for power. In the 1880's, a race riot in Danville was used effectively by the conservatives, organized as the Democratic Party, to take control of the state for a century.3

Virginia politics and government remained largely in the hands of a few until the 1960's. Many white Virginians had accepted that pattern for decades, but after fighting overseas in World War II to defeat dictatorships, the veterans who settled in the urban areas had an increased sensitivity and desire for a full democratic process in Virginia. Black Virginians had known since Reconstruction that Virginia democracy was highly exclusive.

By the 1950's Byrd was viewed as a reactionary conservative, especially because of his Massive Resistance approach to blocking desegregation after the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. His "pay-as-you-go" philosophy was finally abandoned by Governor Mills Godwin in order to finance the construction of community colleges.

Byrd's political power was based on the ability of the appointed and elected officials to restrict the number of voters, and ensure those few voters were supporters of the Byrd Organization (or "machine"). A landslide election would have 7% of the potential electorate voting for candidates supported by Byrd, and 4% voting for the opposition... a total of less than 15% of theoretically-possible voters actually participating in the process.

Byrd's political power was based on white voters in rural areas. The 1902 constitution effectively disenfranchised blacks. In particular, voters were required to pay a "poll tax" (a tax applied equally to all individuals, independent of their income or wealth) three years in advance of voting.

Officials in the rural counties ensured that the tax was paid for known supporters, while erecting numerous roadblocks to registration and voting by opponents. Until the one man-one vote decision, the General Assembly was dominated by representatives from rural areas and the cities received relatively little state support.4

Byrd himself never attended college, and his support for state-financed education was thin even before racial desegregation was mandated "at all deliberate speed" by the Supreme Court. Raising taxes for schools and other social welfare programs would benefit the urban centers where people were concentrated - not his support base.

The Byrd Road Law of 1932 showed the political distinction most clearly. Under that Depression-era law, the state assumed responsibility for maintaining secondary roads in all the counties except Arlington and Henrico - but not the cities. The tax structure was designed to subsidize rural residents who supported the Byrd Organization at the expense of urban resdents. City residents ended up paying state taxes to build and maintain roads in the counties, plus city taxes to support their own local roads:5

One example of the disparity in aid received between counties and cities is that in 1948-49, the Byrd-controlled General Assembly appropriated over $14 million in road funds to the counties but only $1.2 million to cities. Even more infuriating to city residents was the fact that they were paying state gasoline taxes to support county roads in addition to their own local taxes. This urban/rural schism would only deepen over time. Eventually, it undermined the strength of the Byrd political machine.

Rural areas were over-represented in the General Assembly, while urban areas were under-represented. Southside Virginia remained the stronghold of the white supremacist Byrd Machine. Southside was a very conservative region, opposed to high taxes. State and Federal funding for roads and tobacco price supports were welcome, but government interference in traditional cultural patterns was not acceptable. The region had a high percentage of blacks who provided a pool of low-cost farm labor, and whites saw no benefit in changing a social and economic system that had evolved after the Civil War.

Governor Harry F. Byrd
Governor Harry F. Byrd
Source: Library of Congress, Byrd, Harry F. Governor

By the 1960's, the state of Virginia was schizophrenic in its voting. At the local and state level, the Byrd Democrats were firmly in control, and firm in their conservative outlook. Winning the Democratic primary for local or state offices was tantamount to winning the election, except in the Fighting Ninth congressional district of Southwest Virginia where Republicans had consistently challenged Democrats.

At the national level, Virginia voted Republican in support of the conservative national party. Between 1948-2008, Virginia supported the Republican candidate for President, with the exception of the Goldwater-Johnson race in 1964.

Southside was the most rabid in support for "massive resistance" to court-ordered desegregation of schools. Election results for the counties that voted for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election shows how Virginia's conservative voters were concentrated in the region, while Northern Virginia voters endorsed the more-liberal Lyndon Johnson. One analyst noted:6

The Democratic majorities were distributed widely throughout the State except in the central section of Southside Virginia... The election results in this region clearly reflected "backlash" effects from the civil rights posture of the Democrats.

Southside counties supported Barry Goldwater in 1964, even though he was a Republican
Southside counties supported Barry Goldwater in 1964, even though he was a Republican
Source: Wikipedia, United States presidential election, 1964

Senator Byrd maintained a "golden silence" when asked about his support for national Democratic candidates for President, while granting the "nod" to indicate his personal support for state candidates. By the end of 1999, Virginia was the last state to prohibit designation of a candidate's political party on the ballot. This facilitated voting for conservative Republicans at the national level, while maintaining the conservative Democratic control at the local and state levels.

Into the 1960's, the Republican minority in the General Assembly was irrelevant in the decision process. The Speaker of the House of Delegates assigned Republican legislators to phantom committees which never met. Key decisions, such as the crafting of the biennial budget, were made by subcommittees and committees that met in secret without any Republican involvement. Final bill language was released just before the House of Delegates and State Senate voted, giving no time for analysis or debate.7

Only after the Republicans assumed control of the General Assembly in 2000 was this restriction on party identification seriously examined. By that time, the realignment of the state political parties to match the national ideology had been completed - and the assumption was that listing candidates by party would enhance the election of conservative Republican politicians.8

As the Federal government expanded its role in the Great Depression, World War II, and Cold War, new residents moved into Northern Virginia. They brought with them different attitudes, with greater support for public education and less support for state-sponsored segregation of the races. Many of those who migrated into Virginia from northern states had a different perspective on the heritage of Lincoln and the Republican Party, and lacked the tradition of voting for just Democratic candidates.

In 1960, the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and a majority of the General Assembly members took an official "field trip" to explore how Northern Virginia was evolving. Jim Latimer, reporting for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, commented that the growing number of voters included many Federal employees who were not native to Virginia, and were:9

...inclined, on the whole, to be more liberal in their political views than the home-grown Virginian... So far they have scrapped among themselves on local political issues and have not mustered any considerable unified bloc to deliver in statewide elections...

...Some of the vote-conscious visitors were inclined to wonder what might happen to the old stateside political order if the tremendous wave of new residents were to unite at the polls and strike some blows of enlightened self-interest.

The redistricting of the electoral districts for the General Assembly, forced by the Supreme Court, led to greater influence of urban areas, especially Northern Virginia and Tidewater as population swelled in those regions. Harry Byrd retired as U.S. Senator in 1965 before his term concluded, due to ill health. His son, Harry Byrd Jr., was appointed to replace him.

The 24th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1964, ended the use of the poll tax to limit who could vote in Federal elections. That same year, the US Supreme Court ruled in Reynolds v. Sims that electoral districts had to be redrawn to follow the "one man-one vote" rule. The revision of boundaries gave urban residents in Virginia more influence in the General Assembly, and reduced the dominance of the rural residents. In 1966, the US Supreme Court ruled in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections that Virginia's poll tax was unconstitutional for state elections.

The court rulings and the Civil Rights movement led to an expansion of the electorate, which led to the collapse of the Byrd Machine in the 1960's. In the 1965 campaign for governor the Democratic candidate received only 48% of the total vote. It was sufficient to win, since three other candidates split the other 52%. The chair of the Republican Caucus announced proudly in 1966:10

The two-party system came of age in Virginia with the 1966 General Assembly.

the Democratic candidate for governor received only 48% of the vote in 1965
the Democratic candidate for governor received only 48% of the vote in 1965
Source: Virginia Department of Elections, 1965 Governor General Election

In 1969, the Virginia Democratic Party split and Republican lawyer Linwood Holton was elected governor. That election reflected the decline of the modern gentry in Virginia; the expanded electorate wanted expanded government services. Voters were willing to raise taxes to fund education and transportation in particular.

Senator Harry Byrd Jr., who had been appointed to the office to fill out his father's term when he resigned in 1965, chose to run as an independent in 1970. Harry Byrd Jr. narrowly won the Democratic Party nomination in 1966. In 1970, he feared he could not win it again, but was unwilling to be a Republican in a "Solid South" state where that party was still associated with Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Byrd won election with 54% of the vote, defeating a liberal Democrat and a Republican who was not viewed as a conservative.11

In 1973, the business-oriented political conservative shifted their allegiance. They established their control over the Virginia Republican Party, repudiating both the state Democratic Party and Republican Governor Holton in the process.

The defection of the conservatives allowed the Virginia Democratic Party to align itself finally with the social activism of the national Democratic Party, while the state Republican Party aligned itself with the conservative agenda of its national party under President Richard Nixon. Larry Sabato, a keen observer of the political system in Virginia, titled his book on that election Aftermath of "Armageddon": An Analysis of the 1973 Virginia Gubernatorial Election.

Virginia elected its second Republican governor in 1973, but this time the Republican candidate was the choice of conservatives. Mills Godwin had served as a Democratic Governor in 1966-70, and then changed parties in 1973 rather than his conservative principles. Godwin's election as a Republican revealed that Virginia's voters were more interested in conservative government than in loyalty to the Democratic party.

Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell mobilized conservative Christians and led their followers into the Republican Party, after being rejected by Virginia Democrats. Half the governors in the last third of the 20th Century were Republicans. However, thanks in part to the institutional barriers established by the Byrd Organization, Republican control of the legislative branch and local county offices came much later.

In the November, 1999 elections, the Republicans finally took complete control of the General Assembly, with majorities in both the House of Delegates and the State Senate. Governor Gilmore celebrated by using Martin Luther King's "free at last" phrase, reflecting the frustrations of a minority party finally achieving political control.12

Tension emerged within the modern Virginia Republican Party between those who focus on the role of government in protecting business opportunities and those who view it as an engine for social change. During the 2001 election for Governor, a new "Virginians for.." movement was created, in this case "Virginians for Warner," the Democratic candidate for governor.

A "Virginians for.." movement was the traditional mechanism for Virginia Democrats to support national candidates running on the Republican ticket during the heyday of the Byrd Organization. In 2001, however, it was former Republicans who created a party-neutral mechanism in order to support a Democrat perceived as more focused on business rather than a conservative social agenda.

Pendulums swing, and parties gain/lose power. Democratic candidates (Mark Warner and Tim Kaine) won the 2001 and 2005 elections for governor. The Democrats also won control of the 40-member State Senate in 2007, and a Democrat (Jim Webb) upset the Republican incumbent (George Allen) in the race for the US Senate. The final stage in moving away from being a museum of democracy occurred in 2008, when Virginia became a "battleground state" in the presidential election and voted for Barack Obama over John McCain.

In subsequent elections in 2009 and 2010, Republicans were victorious in state elections. Virginia became a "purple" rather than a "red" or "blue" state, with voters willing to switch between parties.

One legacy of the one-party system in Virginia was finally broken in 2017. For the first time, both the Republican and Democratic parties had primaries for governor. Two factors were involved:13
- there enough strong candidates with enough support to finance a contest
- both parties chose to use primaries to nominate candidates rather than conventions, where party activists dominate the process and "average" voters have less influence

By 2020, Virginia was considered a "blue" state that would reliably support Democratic candidates in statewide elections. Urban and suburban voters outnumbered rural voters, and Democratic candidates ran up large margins in the cities. Maps that showed the vote by jurisdiction were primarily red, reflecting the dominance of the Republican party in rural areas, but elections are decided by voters rather than by acres.

most voters supported the Democratic candidate for president in 2020, but most jurisdictions were red rather than blue
most voters supported the Democratic candidate for president in 2020, but most jurisdictions were "red" rather than "blue"
Source: Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), Localities: Number of Registered Voters

The 2020 election set a new record for voter participation. The General Assembly relaxed restrictions on early voting and voter identification mandates. During the COVID-19 pandemic, drop boxes were provided for direct delivery of early votes in addition to reliance on delivery via the Post Office. In the presidential race, 74% of eligible voters cast a ballot in 2020.14

in the 2020 presidential election, turnout exceeded 74% and set a record
in the 2020 presidential election, turnout exceeded 74% and set a record
Source: Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), Partisan Change from 2016

The Byrd Organization

Turning Points in Virginia History



1. Key, V. O., Southern Politics in State and Nation, Knopf, New York, 1949, p.23, (last checked May 22, 2017)
2. "Virginia Constitutional Convention - 1901-1902 Constitutional Convention," in Race and Place: An African-American Community in the Jim Crow South: Charlottesville, Virginia, University of Virginia - Virginia Center for Digital History, 2002, (last checked May 22, 2017)
3. Brendan Wolfe, "Danville Riot (1883)," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, June 29, 2015, (last checked May 22, 2017)
4. Brent Tarter, "Byrd Organization," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, April 7, 2011,
5. Robert D. Vander Lugt, Salil Virkar, "Coordination of Transportation Planning and Land Use Control: A Challenge for Virginia in the 21st Century," Virginia Transportation Research Council, June 1991, p.5,
6. Ralph Eisenberg, "The 1964 Presidential Election in Virginia: A Political Omen?," The University of Virginia News Letter, April 15, 1965, (last checked May 22, 2017)
7. M. Caldwell Butler, "A Republican Looks At the 1966 Virginia General Assembly," The University of Virginia News Letter, August 15, 1966, p.45, (last checked November 14, 2020)
8. "Virginia ballots skimp on party ID," Washington Post, October 25, 2011, (last checked May 22, 2017)
9. "Gordon C. Morse: Northern Virginia's growth changed the commonwealth," The Virginian-Pilot, January 26, 2020, (last checked January 29, 2020)
10. M. Caldwell Butler, "A Republican Looks At the 1966 Virginia General Assembly," The University of Virginia News Letter, August 15, 1966, p.45, (last checked November 14, 2020)
11. "Larry Sabato: Can Bill Bolling revive Virginia's independent streak?," Richmond Times-Dispatch, February 24, 2013, (last checked November 14, 2020)
12. "Va. GOP Has Historic Triumph," Washington Post, November 4, 1999, (last checked May 22, 2017)
13. "This is the first time in Virginia history both parties have contested gubernatorial primaries," Daily Press, May 19, 2017, (last checked May 22, 2017)
14. "Record Turnout in Virginia," Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), (last checked November 11, 2020)

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