On July 30, 1619, 22 men met in Jamestown for what eventually would become the longest, continuing, democratically-elected legislative body in the western hemisphere. They were originally called burgesses, and their meeting was an experiment in representative democracy that changed the world. This week, the nation importantly celebrates the 400th anniversary of that historic gathering.
While the experiment of democracy in the New World ultimately led to some incredible results, Virginia’s democracy was far from perfect. Some of the most egregious scars were Virginia’s laws that codified, encouraged, tolerated and forced enslavement on African people, forcibly brought first to Point Comfort in today’s Hampton a few weeks after the House of Burgesses’ inaugural meeting.
For most Virginia’s history, the state had laws designed to discourage voting and perpetuate elite power. In 1619, only adult, white men who were not enslaved or indentured servants could vote. After various experiments and Bacon’s Rebellion, legislators enacted property ownership requirements for voting so onerous that three decades after American independence in 1776, one-third of adult, white Virginia men still were still not allowed to vote. This law especially affected Virginians west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In fact, the legislature did not abolish property ownership voting requirements until 232 years after democracy began in Virginia.
When Reconstruction Era constitutional reforms pushed voter participation to new levels, white backlash brought state-sanctioned discrimination openly directed at African and Native Americans resulting in voting policies designed to reduce turnout to only the “right” voters -- wealthy white people. Voter turnout dropped from 264,000 voters in the 1900 presidential election to 130,000 four years later thanks to the poll tax, literacy test and felon voter disenfranchisement.
Like many other states, Virginia’s laws also barred women from voting until the 19th Amendment became law on August 18, 1920 -- 301 years after the founding of democracy in the western hemisphere that we celebrate. Virginia refused to even ratify the 19th Amendment until 1952. With women voting, Virginia voter turnout jumped from 232,000 in 1920 to 305,000 by 1928.
Virginia also has a long history of abusive gerrymandering. In the first 300 years, the legislature periodically refused to redraw legislative districts in order to perpetuate the power of wealthy landowners in the Tidewater. By 1960, fear of minority, lower-income whites and ultimately progressive Democrats meant districts had little relation to population and some congressional districts had 50 percent more residents than others. In 1962, Fairfax County was given one state senator after seeing 179% population growth between 1950-60. The U.S. Supreme Court ended this with “one man, one vote” in Baker v. Carr in 1962.
Entrenched power worked to keep minority influence down in other ways. For example, Virginia cities often annexed neighboring county land as “white flight” gave rise to more minority voting in cities, particularly in Richmond. After many counties converted into cities (cities could not annex land from other cities), the General Assembly enacted an annexation moratorium in 1987.
Virginia’s blemished history is one reason many Virginians object to efforts to restrictive measures like voter identification laws. Considering the current majority of the House of Delegates was decided by the flip of a film cannister, one cannot help but think these policies make a difference in maintaining power.
Last month, I was in Greece where democracy was invented. As I travelled the country and saw many old statues, I wondered how many were hated by subsequent generations, torn down and replaced. I also wondered how a society that achieved so much, ruled the western world and created much of the foundational elements of western culture could come crashing down and exist today with a population smaller than Virginia and an economy smaller than that of the states of Oregon and Tennessee.
Our current national political environment has demonstrated that many basic, norms that Americans thought were permanent can be shattered. The last two millennia and Virginia’s last four centuries show that democracy can be a fickle thing if we do not protect it. So while we honor the 400th anniversary of democracy in Virginia on July 30, 2019, please remember our scarred history.
It has been an honor for me to serve you as part of this experiment, started 400 years ago, and I will continue to do my best to make Virginia’s democracy as strong and participatory as it can be.
The writer, a Democrat, is a state senator representing the 36thDistrict, which includes parts of Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties.