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September 10, 2013

I Paid To Vote in the Old Days

Harry M. Covert

One of the most exciting days of the year for me has always been Election Day. This day not only has been the climax of political campaigning and campaigners; but, back in my young days, it was somewhat of a social event, really a fun day.


On the day I reached 21 years of age, I proudly and innocently marched down to the city’s voter registration office. There in the courthouse Mrs. Inez Ashe, Hampton’s registrar, had a few questions for me. Was I a property owner? Had I paid my taxes? How long had I lived in the city? I also produced a copy of my birth certificate and even my draft card, which I still have, all brown with age and showing 1-A. I never burned it and was never called up.


At the moment Mrs. Ashe’s questioning seemed akin to being interrogated by the city police. All I wanted to do was vote. I did what I was told and signed the form.


I was excited and ready for the next election, which would have been the spring primaries. Then Mrs. Ashe said, “You gotta pay the poll tax.” No one had alerted me about more taxes. But a tax to vote? I put up a small argument, but Mrs. Ashe didn’t crack a smile. Firmly as a prison matron, she said: “If you want to vote you have to pay the $1.50 poll tax.” I had a dollar bill and at least 50 cents in assorted change. I just made it.


In today’s world I chuckle when I hear about people who have trouble pulling the right lever or punching out the right holes. In my early days you just marked the ballot with a pencil, paid the poll tax and kept the receipt just in case you were challenged. You couldn’t pay the tax the day before the election or the day of the voting.


In the Commonwealth of Virginia, several things were important in elections. It was advantageous to be a Democrat. It was smart to be a supporter of Winchester’s Harry Flood Byrd, Senior, and also the local members of the Byrd Machine. Whatever office you wanted to run for you had to have the Byrd blessing. Of course, you had to be a public Democrat, too. Another caveat was you had to pay the poll tax, thanks also to the Byrd Machine. And there was such an organization.


The $1.50 was quite a high fee for a lot of people back in the Fifties and Sixties. I was such an innocent it was only then I realized the reason for the poll tax: to keep “some” people from voting. No one wanted to admit it, but those “some” people were primarily black families and poor whites all over the Commonwealth and throughout the south.


I started working the polls. In those days the Commonwealth allowed everybody to get a driver’s license at age 15 if you could pass the written, the driving and then the parking test. There was intimidation for a 15-year-old and that was with the uniformed and armed Division of Motor Vehicles agents, dressed similar to the State Police. You had to drive around the block, give hand signals out of the window and then park between two imaginary cars without bumping the curb. I passed the test in January.


In the spring, there came the primary elections. A “machine” friend offered me an Election Day job. I couldn’t vote, but I could drive people to the polls. I loved it. The pay was five bucks and a lot of tips. We managed to get many people safely to the voting booths and no one complained.


Precincts were fun to be around.  We’d pick up the voters, drive to the proper voting place and wait. While we were waiting we could enjoy all kinds of homemade cakes and pies and sandwiches. I liked the chocolate meringue pies and political talk.


Sometimes, we had to make late riders because it was getting near to closing time and the candidate or candidates needed an extra bit of help.


I didn’t know the difference between the parties in those days. There weren’t any because there was just one, Byrd Democrats. In those days we pretty well knew who was going to win on all levels. You couldn’t even be a local precinct leader of the local Democratic executive committee unless you had permission and the approval of Senator Byrd’s team.


Of course, now we voters and workers are a bit more sophisticated, some even superannuated. We have real voting rules, mainly no $1.50 poll tax and 18-year-olds can vote. Times have changed. Fifteen-year-olds can’t have a full-fledged driver’s license.


This year, we don’t know who’s going to win the elections beforehand. Even the so-called experts really can’t honestly predict.


And I’m not either.


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