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    In 1945, a judge voided an entire county’s election returns in one statewide race

    By Dwayne Yancey,

    10 days ago

    The lawsuit by the loser of the Republican city council primary in Lynchburg that seeks to void the election is rare, but not unprecedented.

    An alert reader — former Del. Watkins Abbitt Jr. of Appomattox County — calls my attention to one of the most famous contested elections in Virginia history: the disputed 1945 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. It’s a colorful tale of corruption and magnanimity that tells us something about the politics of that bygone era, but has threads that continue on to this very day.

    We must remember that in 1945, Virginia was still essentially a one-party state — that one party being the Democratic Party, which was firmly (but not completely) under the grip of U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd Sr., the so-called Byrd Machine. The Byrd Machine was quite conservative, but Democrats were starting to see some left-of-center dissenters who identified more with the national party than the state party. A few from the Washington suburbs were creeping into Virginia; a few others were from the Roanoke Valley. Byrd’s hold had always been tenuous there and farther southwest. The Republican Party of that era was an insignificant force in Virginia; its influence was also mostly felt in the western part of the state — what history remembers as “mountain-valley Republicans.” Those regional differences dated to before the Civil War — the western part of the state, with fewer enslaved laborers, felt less attachment to the Confederacy — and became more pronounced in the decades ahead when Byrd tried to rally Virginia in “massive resistance” to court-ordered school integration.

    That’s getting ahead of the story, though. Here’s how lopsided things were back in 1945: The House of Delegates consisted of 94 Democrats and just six Republicans. The state Senate was 37 Democrats, three Republicans. Democrats had won every statewide election since 1881. Democratic candidates often topped 80%. In the previous governor’s race, the Democratic candidate had taken 80.6% of the vote and won every locality in the state except for three persistent Republican holdouts: Carroll County, Floyd County and Shenandoah County. (If today’s House minority leader, Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, is reading this, I suspect he’s nodding with approval at his county’s history as a stalwart bastion for Republicans. Some voting patterns change over time. Some don’t.)

    The practical effect of that was the Democratic primary was tantamount to election, and usually a nod from Byrd was all it took to be ordained as the party’s nominee. The primary was little more than a formality. In those poll tax days, the electorate was intentionally small and virtually all white. This is why the Texas-born Harvard political scientist V.O. Key Jr. famously wrote: “By comparison to Virginia, Mississippi is a hotbed of democracy.”

    The 1945 election promised to be no different.

    Lt. Gov. Bill Tuck of Halifax County was Byrd’s choice for governor, and he would have no problems winning. He did face an opponent, though: Roanoke lawyer Moss Plunkett, a longtime critic of the Byrd Machine whom even his hometown newspaper, The Roanoke Times, derided as “a perennial candidate.” Tuck would go on to win the primary with 70.6% of the vote; Plunkett won just seven localities, five of them in that always-troublesome western part of the state.

    Two members of the Byrd Machine wanted to succeed Tuck as lieutenant governor and, for reasons lost in history, Byrd did not choose between them. That set up a three-way primary between the two Byrd Machine candidates — Del. Charles Fenwick of Arlington County and Del. Preston “Pat” Collins of Smyth County — and state Sen. Leonard Muse, an anti-Byrd Machine candidate from Roanoke. (You’ll notice a trend here in terms of Roanoke being a font of anti-Byrd sentiment.)

    When the results came in on election night, Fenwick appeared to win narrowly: 51,922 votes for him, 51,350 for Collins, 32,426 for Muse. In percentage terms, that was Fenwick 38.3%, Collins 37.8%, Muse 23.9% (which was about standard for an anti-Byrd candidate in those days). Under today’s laws, Fenwick’s margin of 0.5% would have been enough to allow a recount.

    However, two counties had curious results.

    In Appomattox County, 97.4% of the votes went to Collins — 1,610 for him, just 25 for Fenwick, 18 for Muse.

    In Wise County, 92.0% of the votes went to Fenwick — 3,307 for him, 164 for Muse, 122 for Collins.

    No other localities, not even the candidates’ home counties, showed such landslide margins.

    Collins went to court to challenge the results, targeting that suspiciously large margin for Fenwick in Wise County. (Fenwick never questioned the suspiciously large margin for Collins in Appomattox County. After all, he was the winner and didn’t need to question anything.)

    Today, election challenges go before a three-judge panel (which has just been named in the case of Peter Alexander’s suit to throw out Chris Faraldi’s primary win in Lynchburg). Then, Collins’ suit went before a single judge: Julien Gunn of Richmond.

    An investigation found that all but two of Wise County’s poll books, which listed who voted, were missing. Encyclopedia Virginia says 25 of the 27 poll books had “disappeared.” In his book “Virginia: The New Dominion,” historian Virginius Dabney wrote that 24 of the 26 poll books had been “stolen.” Abbitt says that his father, Watkins Abbitt Sr., the 5th District congressman at the time, and state Sen. Charles Moses of Lynchburg went down to Wise County to look into things and were told the poll books had been burned. Somebody with the Fenwick campaign “paid somebody $10,000 to give ’em the majority Wise County,” Abbitt said, and whoever that was didn’t pay attention to such pesky details as the law. More votes were recorded being cast than there were registered voters at the time, Abbitt said.

    The judge declared Wise County was “impregnated with political crooks and ballot thieves” and voided all the votes from the county, which handed the election to Collins. A subsequent grand jury adjourned without indicting anyone, but found that “most of the illegal acts have been the result of precedent and practice, over a number of years, possibly as many as 20 or 25, although no complaint seems to have been called to the attention of the court at any time.”

    In his history, Dabney writes that election fraud in Southwest Virginia was quite common at the time and was tied to payment of the poll tax, with both parties in Southwest making block payments on behalf of certain voters, and then using those names to cast absentee ballots on that party’s behalf. Dabney wrote that political operatives would carry so-called “black satchels” full of absentee ballots, marked on behalf of those voters whose poll taxes had been paid — not necessarily with their knowledge. During an election dispute in Dickenson County in 1943, Judge Joseph Cantwell of Bristol opined that the election was conducted with “shocking and flagrant violations of the law … as though done with the purpose of seeing that no election vices be left undone.”

    Dabney wrote in his history that the abolition of the poll tax brought an end to those abuses, but memories of them ran long. When I started covering politics for The Roanoke Times in 1985, I made multiple trips to Southwest Virginia, and I remember one old-timer chortling about “the Detroit precinct.” That was a reference to all the people from Appalachia who moved to Detroit over the years to work in auto factories there — and the fraudulent absentee votes cast in their name. (Steve Earle wrote about this migration in his song “ Hillbilly Highway” : My granddaddy was a miner, but he finally saw the light / He didn’t have much, just a beat-up truck and a dream about a better life / Grandmama cried when she waved goodbye, never heard such a lonesome sound / Pretty soon the dirt road turned into blacktop, Detroit City bound. )

    Anyway, as that Southwest Virginia old-timer told me back in ’85, it was common practice in an earlier era to wait to see how close an election was, and then those absentee ballots from “the Detroit precinct” would somehow always manage to make the difference. Funny how that was.

    According to press reports at the time, Fenwick had the option to run as an independent, but declined (although 701 votes were cast in his name). That November, Collins took the typical 67.7% of the vote to win the lieutenant governorship over Republican Carl Marshall. Collins went on to win reelection in 1949 with 75% of the vote against Republican Thomas McGuire. In 1952, while attending the dedication of Sheffey Elementary School in Austinville in Wythe County, Collins suffered a fatal heart attack. He was just 55.

    Fenwick had foregone reelection to the House to run for lieutenant governor. Two years later, in 1947, he won election to the state Senate, and in 1953 sought the Democratic nomination for governor. That year, though, he was up against Byrd’s personal choice, former House Speaker and then-5th District Rep. Thomas Stanley of Henry County. He ran what Encyclopedia Virginia calls a “lackluster campaign” and polled just 34% of the vote. He continued to serve in the General Assembly until his death in 1969. He’s credited with getting the legislature to approve the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which today runs the Metro subway system.

    Today, the names of two of the three contenders in that disputed 1945 election live on. The research library at George Mason University and a Metro bridge across the Potomac are named after Fenwick. Radford University has a dorm named after Muse. Ironically, nothing appears to be named after the candidate who was declared the winner that year.
    Former state Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Pittsylvania County. Photo by Dwayne Yancey

    Want more political news and analysis?

    This week I was in Chatham where I met with former state Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Pittsylvania County, for a future column. I’ll share some details about Hawkins’ post-political career in this week’s political newsletter. West of the Capital goes out Fridays at 3 p.m.; think of it as a bonus column each week. You can sign it for it or any of our other newsletters:

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