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

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,"1 with all the trappings of representative government but none of the dynamic change that reflected the will of the people. The basic structure of government was not fair to minorities, women, urban residents, or Republicans... but personal graft 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 common, however - 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. In one 1875 election in Portsmouth, the Conservatives used different paper for their ballots than the Republicans. When the judges counted the ballots, they carefully selected - by feel - the ballots they knew were for their candidates.

There was a two-party democracy in Virginia during the 1830's and 1840's, but Virginia politics and government remained largely in the hands of a few until the 1960's. The "one man-one vote" redistricting, Civil Rights movement and the collapse of the Byrd Machine in the 1960's reduced the role of the modern gentry. The initial success of the Virginia Republican Party in 1969, electing Linwood Holton as the state's first Republican governor, reflected the decline of the business elite in Virginia.

Black Virginians were well aware that Virginia democracy was highly exclusive. 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.

By the 1960'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.

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

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.

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 the counties - but not the cities. (Arlington and Henrico counties also opted out of the law.) As described in Coordination of Transportation Planning and Land Use Control: A Challenge for Virginia in the 21st Century: "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."

Southside Virginia was a stronghold of the Byrd Machine. That region was over-represented in the General Assembly, while urban areas were under-represented. Southside was a very conservative region, opposed to "big government" (though interested in local highway improvements and tobacco price supports...).

In the 1950's, Southside was the most rabid in support for "massive resistance" to court-ordered desegregation of schools. A review of the election results for the counties that voted for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election and George Wallace in 1968 shows how Virginia's conservative voters were concentrated in the region, and how Northern Virginia voters shifted from Democratic to Republican over those 4 years.

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 in Virginia was tantamount to winning the election, except in the Fighting Ninth congressional district of Southwest Virginia.

Senator Harry Byrd
Senator Harry Byrd
Source: US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration

At the national level, however, Virginia voted Republican in support of the conservative national party. Since 1948, Virginia has supported the Republican candidate for President (with the exception of the Goldwater-Johnson race in 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. 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.

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. In 1965, Harry Byrd retired as U.S. Senator before his term concluded, due to ill health. (His son, Harry Byrd Jr., was appointed to replace him). In 1966, the Supreme Court ruled that Virginia's poll tax was illegal. In 1969, the Virginia Democratic Party split and Republican lawyer Linwood Holton was elected governor.

Another Republican governor was elected in 1973 - Mills Godwin, who had served as a Democratic Governor in 1966-70 and changed parties rather than his conservative principles - and 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, 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 quoting Martin Luther King ("Free at last"), reflecting the frustrations of a minority party finally achieving political control.

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 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 the national party.

In 1973, when Virginia elected Miles Godwin as a Republican governor, it became clear that Virginia was more interested in conservative government than in loyalty to the Democratic party. Larry Sabato, the premier political analyst in Virginia, described that election as "Armageddon" because it destroyed so many traditions and stereotypes regarding Virginia politics.

Since then, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have mobilized conservative Christians. After being rejected by Virginia Democrats, they led their followers into the Republican Party. Today, there's an obvious tension 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 is now a "purple" rather than a "red" or "blue" state, with voters willing to switch between parties.


1. Key, V. O., Southern Politics in State and Nation, Knopf, New York, 1949

The Byrd Organization
Turning Points in Virginia History
Government and Politics
Virginia Places