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Summer 2017 issue
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article Highest Aspirations: Virginians
Hear
Hail to the Chief Again.

"You've come a long way, baby!"
This tag line from a successful marketing campaign was first used by the Phillip Morris Company in 1968. Just like this "Virginia Slims" ad, Virginia had come a long way. The late 60's were a time of great and disparate change, the country was often divided, and social and civic reform ruled the decade.

Many changes had filtered across the Potomac, and the slow but steady march for transformation had finally made its way to Richmond. Attitudes were changing.

Supreme Court decisions and Federal Acts had rightfully eviscerated the discriminatory clauses of Virginia's sixty six year old Constitution, and with it, the Commonwealth's Election laws under Title 24.

In Virginia however, change comes slowly, and not without associated growing pains.
The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had been signed by President Johnson; the U.S. Supreme Court over the course of several decades had systematically dismantled discriminatory registration and election practices.

The remnants of the "Byrd Machine" and the ratification of the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution resulted in the Old Dominion temporarily adopting a "You can't tell us what to do" attitude that produced separate and often competing Federal and State voting rolls. It was only after the U. S. Supreme Court ruled against Virginia's mandatory poll taxes in Harper vs. Virginia State Board of Elections did lawmakers began to re-evaluate. (Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966)

Something had to be done, and in 1968 the process of re-writing Virginia's election laws began. The Virginia General Assembly mustered an election laws study commission that, in conjunction with the work of writing a new Virginia Constitution, resulted in a revised body of law administering the Commonwealth's elections.

The new Election Laws were compiled into Title 24.1, enacted by the General Assembly in 1970. Along with the articles of suffrage of the newly proposed Virginia Constitution the revamped election laws were revolutionary and very progressive at the time. The new set of laws demanded uniformity in voter registration and charged the State Board of Elections with oversight of the registrars' offices and practices.

GASP! Nearly everyone could register to vote! It was enough to give grandma the vapors!

The new Constitution disallowed registration only for non-citizenship and the legal disabilities of felony conviction and adjudicated incompetence. Originally, a short residence requirement of six months, and legal age of 21 years old were included only to be changed within a year. The 26th Amendment allowed eighteen year olds to register and in the same year a Supreme Court ruling struck down durational residency requirements. (Dunn v. Blumstein, 405 U.S. 330 (1972)

But Virginia being Virginia, and quite set in her ways, kept many of the well-established methods of administering her elections. Some of these laws were enacted by Acts of Assembly dating back to the 1880s. The somewhat unique Virginia system of appointed Electoral Boards and Registrars was first utilized in 1884, along with standardized ballots, officers of election and pre-registration requirements.

But the new laws did make several significant changes, from the new set of laws a new office emerged, the Office of the General Registrar.

The General Registrar was the centralized replacement for a registrar of voters in every precinct. Beginning in 1971 each Virginia locality relied on the General Registrar as the single registration official who maintained the voter rolls throughout the locality. Later the Constitution was amended to include the office of General Registrar. (Art II § 8)

Under the 1970 changes, the Commonwealth was the first state to create a centralized voter database, and among the first to use the central system to allow transfers between localities when a voter moved. The centralized system prevented multiple registrations and helped push Virginia to the forefront of voter list maintenance. The General Registrar was and continues to be, the official charged with adding, changing, transferring, and deleting voter records from the Virginia list.

The new General Registrar would still be appointed by a three member Electoral Board, all of whom are appointed by party. However the General Registrar wore no party label, could not participate in party politics, could hold no other office, nor be an employee of any elected officer.

This new paradigm was meant to create an autonomous entity, theoretically free from the type of party control that had typically influenced the election rolls for their own benefit. Case law in the 1980's reinforced this independence and prohibited the practice of removing a registrar for party affiliation when the Governor changed. Another case prohibited the registrar's office from being anywhere but in a publicly accessible building.

As the legal challenges of elections grew, the office of the registrar evolved. Each General Assembly session added language to §24.1. The title also grew through litigation, more Federal Acts, and a continually expanding electorate.

By 1992 §24.1 was so piecemealed and disorganized the Virginia Code Commission undertook the job of re-codifying the Title into the 10 separate and distinct chapters of §24.2, the title Virginia Elections operate under today.

Virginia's Election Laws have continued to transform and evolve. Each year the Virginia General Assembly will, on average, consider 200 individual election related bills. Since the re-codification in 1993 the 180 page §24.2 has grown to over 400 pages of Code in 2017. State law, Federal Acts, and Court rulings continue to shape the Commonwealth's elections. Virginia's General Registrars, now also referred to as Directors of Election, have evolved with the law to keep Virginia's Elections among the most highly regarded in the United States.

Even as Virginia is rated among the top three states in the nation in election administration and voter registration, there are still obstacles to overcome. It wasn't until 2016, that Virginia finally made all local election offices full-time, allowing all Virginia Citizens equal access to registration and elections services. Local administrations still don't know how to classify the General Registrar, and too often elections are overlooked, and underfunded for other priorities. I'll get into that next time.

Yes, we've come a long way, baby, but there's still a long way to go.

Tracy Howard has served as the General Registrar/Director of Elections for the City of Radford since 1992 and is President of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia.