Forty-two years ago, Fergie Reid involuntarily left electoral politics: He was defeated for a fourth term in the House of Delegates representing the Richmond area. But the first African-American elected to the Virginia legislature in the 20th century didn’t really leave politics. Reid returned to its basics, especially voter registration.
Reid discusses registration with ardor. It’s about numbers, he says in his spacious brick house in western Henrico County. The more, he says, the merrier the outcome for his beloved Democratic Party. Though Reid expresses distaste for the party’s refusal — in this make-or-break legislative election year for Gov. Terry McAuliffe — to compete here, there, everywhere because of low returns and high costs.
“If you don’t have a Democratic candidate, there’s no incentive,” says Reid. “Even if you lose the election, each election is a dress rehearsal for the next. It’s not the money that wins the election, it’s the vote.”
William Ferguson Reid knows something about the long haul. That’s why this quiet, energetic pioneer — he’s a retired surgeon whose practice took him to some of the world’s trouble spots — says voter registration is so important. He says if Democrats add to the rolls now, they can win later, perhaps retaking the Virginia Senate this fall and, by the next redistricting in 2021, the House of Delegates.
Other Democrats say it’s not so wild a dream. As a 90th birthday present to Reid — he was born in Richmond on March 18, 1925 — a group of friends is pledging to register during this electoral cycle 90 new voters in each of Virginia’s 2,588 precincts. That would be 232,920 new voters on rolls currently brimming with 5.2 million. In tribute to Reid, the drive is called “90 for 90.” That’s its Web address, too.
“Fergie has been doggedly working to find candidates for last year’s congressional elections and now for the House and Senate,” says Nancy Finch, a former Richmond newspaper reporter, lobbyist, Democratic activist and unsuccessful House prospect in 1995. “He goes after candidates and money. He is amazing. If all Democrats worked as hard, with such dedication, as he does, Virginia would be royal blue statewide.”
Reid’s son and namesake, Fergie Reid Jr., says 90 for 90 is sweeter than cake and ice cream as a birthday remembrance. The younger Reid — like his father, a physician — says he told the elder Reid’s pals, “Maybe do something substantive for Dad’s birthday. You all do politics together. Why not register new voters?”
Voter registration is the essential scut work of politics. Too often, it is overlooked or underemphasized, particularly in congressional and legislative elections, because partisan gerrymandering awards disproportionate influence to narrow bands of voters. There’s little reason to add voters when only a few count.
90 for 90 aims to change that, coupling its registration push with the organizations of Democratic elective officials and candidates. On its website are links to others’: Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring, 14 Senate candidates, 18 for the House, a local candidate in Henrico as well as two Democrat-friendly organizations.
Registration is part of a larger mosaic that includes another work in progress: McAuliffe’s push to reinstate the civil rights — among them, the voting rights — of thousands of felons who have served their time.
More than 6,500 have had their rights restored since McAuliffe was sworn in 15 months ago. He expects to surpass 8,000 by the end of the year, topping a record set over four years by Republican predecessor Bob McDonnell. By the time McAuliffe leaves office in January 2018, he hopes to reach 20,000.
In letters to felons announcing that their civil rights have been reinstated by the governor, Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney includes a voter-registration application and instructions for submitting it to the local registrar, who, in turn, will send them a voter card.
The third tile in the mosaic may, for Democrats, be the most problematic: voter mobilization.
Who votes and their reason to vote are undercut by the lack of competition, which is the intended effect of made-to-order House and Senate districts. Before Republicans elevated gerrymandering to a computer-driven art, Democrats relied on the cut-and-paste method of anti-competitive legislative map-making.
Though the deadline for picking candidates isn’t until June, it’s the partisan disposition of a district that will largely determine whether voters have a choice in November. Plus, turnout hits rock bottom in legislative years. Perhaps one in four voters participate. A lower turnout helps the incumbent or, if the seat is open, the nominee of the party for whom the district is tailored.
McAuliffe, a political operative before he was a political candidate, is keen on data-driven voter programs. It’s an expensive science that relies on detailed snapshots of voters, cross-tabs and algorithms, much of which is filtered through Twitter, Facebook or other social media.
It’s what Reid was doing in the 1950s with 3-by-5 index cards, a rotary telephone, car pools and taxi cabs, when he, John Mitchell Brooks and Bill Thornton launched the Richmond Crusade for Voters to spur black voters against the segregationist Democratic oligarchy that relied on the poll tax to prevent African-Americans and poor whites from registering.
The trio even learned a few tricks from their adversaries.
To vote, Virginians not only had to pay a $1.50 tax, they had to do so six months before the primary, which in the states of the Old Confederacy was tantamount to election. In Richmond, Reid says, there were two cash registers in the treasurer’s office; one stamped the date the voter paid his or her tax.
If the city’s conservative white Establishment needed voters — and the filing deadline had lapsed — they were registered using the date-less machine. That way, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to challenge a voter’s eligibility. In 1946, ahead of a referendum to install a city manager form of government, Richmond’s business class wanted blacks to support the scheme. Reid says it required the same allowance for African-Americans that had been made for whites.
Nearly 70 years later, the poll tax is gone. But to Democrats such as Reid, its successor in Virginia is the Republican-authored voter ID law. It requires that a voter produce a photo identity card before going into the polling booth. Democrats say it’s designed to discourage their voters: minorities, seniors and the young.
Fergie Reid is not discouraged. Such laws are another reason to register voters and elect the legislators who can repeal them, he says. For Reid, it comes down to a favorite metaphor: an Egyptian pyramid.
“The precincts are the base of the pyramid,” says Reid. “That’s where the voters are. That’s where the energy is.”