What are the privileges of citizenship?
The Constitution and the laws grant citizens privileges that non-citizens do not have. Today one of the essential rights of citizens is the right to vote, but this right has not always been synonymous with citizenship.
In Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1856, the Supreme Court ruled that African Americans were not citizens. Acknowledging that some free blacks could vote, Justice Taney explained, "[A] person may be a citizen, that is, a member of the community who form the sovereignty, although he exercises no share of the political power, and is incapacitated from holding particular office."
Winning the Vote
From 1670 to 1851 in Virginia, only white men who owned land could vote. All white men gained the right to vote in 1851. African American men gained the right to vote in 1867, but it took almost a century for them to freely exercise this right.
Losing the Vote
In 1902 a new Virginia constitution required men to pay a poll tax and answer a registrar's questions before registering to vote. The requirement effectively disenfranchised most African Americans and many poor white voters. The poll tax was abolished for federal elections when the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1964. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections that the poll tax was unconstitutional in state elections.
On September 13, 1902, the registrar in Warren County asked Charles Wilson Butler, a blacksmith, to explain section 4 of the new state constitution. Butler replied "that you men have no right to refuse to register me." But the registrar wrote that Butler was "not admitted."
Virginia women who paid a poll tax gained the right to vote in 1920 when the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Although the Virginia General Assembly did not ratify that amendment until 1952, the federal amendment permitted Virginia women to vote in national elections beginning in 1920.