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September 25, 2014

I Paid To Vote

Harry M. Covert

One of the most exciting days of the year for me has always been Election Day. I consider it a High Holy Day. This day is not only the climax of political campaigning and campaigners; but, back in my fledgling 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 old Elizabeth City County 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 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, signed the form. I was excited and eagerly anticipated the next election. I missed out on the Kennedy-Nixon battle.


Then Mrs. Ashe sprung on me, “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 hearing about people who have trouble casting ballots, mostly by computer. In my early days you just marked the ballot with a pencil, paid the poll tax and kept the receipt just in case a challenge arose. 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 “big D” 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. I have been forgiven for those days.


Now $1.50 was quite a high fee for a lot of people 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 didn’t know I was in the deprived category.


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 tests. This was mere intimidation for a 15-year-old. Those tests were 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. For the record, my family then didn’t have a car.


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 places and wait. While waiting we could enjoy all kinds of homemade cakes and pies and sandwiches. I liked the chocolate meringue, apple and coconut pies, similar to those featured by Thurmont, MD., impresarios Russ Delauter, “Tootie” Lenhart and Mike Fitzgerald. Political talk, then as now, was simply enthralling.


Sometimes, we had to make late rides because it was getting near 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. 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.


Obviously times have progressed here in Frederick County. For the record, Maryland on February 6, 1963, ratified the 24th amendment which outlawed the poll tax. The matter was disentangled for all elections – local, state and federal – when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1966 the poll tax was unconstitutional.


Of course, now we voters 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 local elections beforehand. Even the so-called experts can’t honestly predict. The county elections for county executive and council, judgeship and state’s attorney, court clerks, school board and sheriff are all going to be exciting. Why not? That’s what they’re supposed to be.


I’m going to vote again, I’ve never missed and I’ll be attending some non-poll tax receptions. The food will be good and the orations will be fun, informative and important.


Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
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