Articles by Claire Guthrie Gastañaga
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Why Women Don’t Vote in Virginia and Why They Should:  
3 Reasons for Richmond Area Women to Vote on November 4th

Richmond WOMAN, Vol. 1, Issue 3, November 2003, pp. 15-16

Virginia women don’t register to vote or turnout to vote with the same frequency as women in more than 30 other states.  From 1992-96 Virginia ranked 36th out of 50 states in the number of women registered to vote (5th out of nine in the South Atlantic Region) and 33rd out of 50 states in women’s voter turnout (3rd out of nine in the Region).  There are a number of reasons that may account for our relatively poor performance, the first of which may be Virginia’s history.

Virginia was not in the forefront when it came to granting women the right to vote.  Although the women’s suffrage amendment to the United States Constitution was signed into law in 1920, it was not until 1952, nearly thirty-two years later, that the General Assembly of Virginia voted to ratify the amendment.  Opposition to women’s suffrage was closely linked to Virginia’s long and sad history of using every means available to deny African Americans the right to participate in the political process and to vote. 

Following the Civil War, for three decades Virginia’s constitution provided for universal suffrage for men, and Virginia sent an African American man to Congress in the last decade of the 19th Century.  Lawson, Black Ballots:  Voting Rights in the South, 1944-1969 (Lexington Books, 1999) at 7.  At the turn of the century, however, Virginia joined other southern states in a concerted effort to disenfranchise black voters – an effort that resulted in the adoption of a new state constitution in 1912 that included specific provisions designed to effect this result.  Id. at 11  “In Virginia, the effect of the constitutional provisions was to reduce the black electorate from 147,000 to 21,000.”  Lawson at 14-15 citing, Virginia Writer’s Project, The Negro in Virginia (Arno Press, 1969) at 240.

The women’s suffrage movement played out against this backdrop. A report issued in 1941 concerning Virginia’s poll tax and other barriers to voting imposed on black voters by the 1912 Constitution said that “fear of large numbers of Negro women voters” fueled opposition to the women’s suffrage amendment which was “decisively rejected” by the General Assembly.  Robert K. Gooch, Introduction, “Report of the Subcommittee for a Study of Constitutional Provisions Concerning Voting in Virginia,”
The Poll Tax in Virginia Suffrage History:  A Premature Proposal for Reform (1941) (Institute of Government, University of Virginia 1969) at 5.

Although the poll tax and other constitutional provisions designed to deny political and voting rights to black Virginians were nullified by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Virginia remains a state in which it is more difficult to cast a ballot than in many others.  While other states have encouraged initiatives designed to make it easier to vote including voting by mail, “no excuse” absentee voting and early voting, Virginia has resisted efforts to make voting more accessible.  For example, former Governor Gilmore twice vetoed legislation that would have allowed anyone to cast an absentee ballot. As a result, Virginia continues to require voters to have a specific reason to vote absentee.

Women voters trying to balance jobs and families may find it more difficult to find time to vote in person during the hours that the polls are open on Election Day.  Unfortunately, Virginia does not recognize the ordinary demands of life as justifying access to an absentee ballot.

Even though there are competing demands on our time and we have to work to make voting a priority in order to “get it in” between work and carpools and grocery shopping and caregiving and all of the other things that we have to balance to make our lives work, there are important reasons this year (and every election cycle) why it is critical that Richmond women make the time to vote

Following are three reasons why Richmond women should go to the polls this year on Election Day (November 4, 2003): 

1.       If you live in the City, you’ll have the opportunity to decide whether Richmond should have a mayor elected citywide.  

Members of a commission formed by former Governor Doug Wilder and former Congressman Tom Bliley are urging a vote in favor of a referendum on the ballot that supports electing the mayor citywide.  A citizens’ commission appointed by the City Council (on which I sat) was unable to reach agreement on the issue.  For my own part, the longer I sat on the City Government Commission, and the more I learned about the pros and cons of the elected mayor proposal, the less persuaded I was that the proposed change in the City’s governing structure would yield any meaningful benefits.  People are always holding Norfolk up as an example of what Richmond could be, and Norfolk chooses its mayor the same way we do now –  election from among the members of the City Council.  So, maybe we should spend more time finding out why Norfolk has better schools, more effective economic development and less crime than we have and spend less time debating whether we should elect our mayor. 

But, no matter what your position on the issue, it is clear that the vote on Election Day will make a difference in how this city is led and by whom.  Women should not be absent from the polls when this important issue is decided.

2.       While contested General Assembly elections are few and far between in our area, there are a number of contested local elections on the ballot that deserve your attention.

If you live in the 4th or 6th Wards in the City, you’ll have the opportunity to choose new city council members.

On Election Day, two special elections are being held to replace council members in the 4th and 6th wards of the City.  In each ward, there are several candidates running who agree on some issues and disagree on others.  But, one thing is clear, the two new members of Council will be the voice for their wards on important issues such as the City’s escalating murder rate, proposed new developments in established neighborhoods, the financing and development of the performing arts center downtown, and any evaluation of the City’s response during the recent hurricane.  All of these are issues that should be important enough for women living in these wards to make time to vote. 

If you live in Richmond’s surrounding counties, there are a number of contested races for the boards of supervisors, the local school boards and for constitutional officer positions. 

Local officials have the most direct impact on your quality of life, whether it is defined by the quality of your schools, the wisdom brought to local growth and development issues or the determination of your local property tax rate.  Local government is the branch of government closest to the people and on which you can have the most direct influence.  Richmond women should become familiar with their local officials and express their views at the ballot box on the leadership they are getting.

3.       You will be setting an example for our children will follow.

If you don’t make participation in civic matters and voting a priority in your house, you are sending a message to the next generation that will result in a smaller and smaller minority of our citizens making decisions that affect all of us.  

Increasingly, only passionate advocates at the extremes of the political spectrum are deciding who is nominated to run for office and who gets elected.  If we want to have leaders who reflect the values of the majority, we need to be sure that a majority of us show up at the polls on Election Day.  In Virginia, just over half of Virginia’s voting age population voted in the last presidential election, and a George Mason University professor estimates that turnout of eligible voters in 2002 was less than 30%. 

Plan now to set an example on Election Day.  You can take your children (or a friend’s child) to the polls with you and show them by example that you think that voting is an important responsibility of citizenship.(end)

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