Our good friend NLS is the spear tip in reporting much of what goes on in Virginia politics. NLS also frequently brings an uncontrollable sense of indignation to his subject matter. But in doing so with a recent post, he misrepresents Virginia history in the hopes of making his charges more explosive.
In this post NLS goes on about democratic committee decisions to have a caucus instead of a primary to choose candidates in the the 39th Senate district and the 40th House district. There is a not so thinly veiled charge of racism, and he compares one democratic candidate to George Allen, etc. It is an interesting string of comments
NLS also offers the following statement as fact:
“As many of you may know, laws from the Byrd Machine remain on the books here in Virginia. One example is the bizarre laws we have in this state that allow the political parties to choose between open primaries and closed caucuses to pick their nominees. This law was put on the books by the Byrd Machine in order to reduce minority turnout and allow whites to pick the Democratic Nominee.”
I suggest a fair reading of history shows this to be a grossly inaccurate interpretation of Virginia history, and one that does a disservice to people who were truly disenfranchised in Virginia during the time of the Byrd Machine.
The Virginia Democratic Party was under the control of the Martin Organization from 1893 until 1919. Following several years of turmoil, state Senator Harry Byrd, Sr., asserted control over the party after rallying anti-debt forces to defeat the 1923 Road Bond Issue refererendum. From then until his death in 1966 the “Byrd Machine” ran the state. The GOP presence was minimal in most parts of the state, strong in the western portions of the Commonwealth.
Byrd ruled the state with an iron hand through the network of courthouse rings, democratic domination of the General Assembly, and a willingness to keep the “wrong people” from voting. If you were a minority, or if you were poor, or if you were unreliable, you did not vote. Poll taxes had to be paid six months prior to election day. You had to pass a literacy test to register to vote. Multi-member legislative districts were used to dilute representation for minority areas and for “liberal” areas.
In his biography “A Man from the Valley”, Francis Pickens Miller, candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1949, recounts his surprise when he asked a house painter for his vote, and the man-caucasian, owned his home, had a steady job, was well thought of-replied “Why Mr. Miller, I don’t belong to those folks who can vote”.
In order to keep things running smoothly, the Byrd Machine codified the use of the open primary and of the closed caucus to nominate candidates. The open primary had the benefit of allowing GOP voters to crossover if the conservative Byrd’s faced a strong liberal challenge (see Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1949 and senate primary in 1952), while the closed caucus allowed the small GOP party to nominate their candidates while minizing costs to the commonwealth. They were decisions based in political practicality and governmental frugality. These practices really did little to diminish minority participation-that damage had already been done by use of the instruments described above.
Perhaps the most effective testimony to what tool was truly used for disenfranchising voters is found in the fact that the US Supreme Court has over time explicity ruled the poll tax, the literacy test, and multi member districts are unconstitutional. The Open primary and the closed caucus method are still on the books.
Why do I offer this history lesson?
Because I find NLS’s misrepresentation of Virginia history to advance his own outrage over a current partisan matter to grossly inappropriate. The Byrd Machine did not select nomination methods in order to supress turnout…the turnout supression had occured long before the nomination method was chosen.