In this year’s controversy over Texas’ voter ID laws are met two of the state’s great electoral traditions.
One is the suppression of votes of minority citizens.
The other is election fraud.
Interestingly, according to the Handbook of Texas, a great historical resource, the first effort to suppress the political power of ex-slaves after the Civil War was, of all things, election fraud.
“The first attempt to end local Republican rule where blacks had a decided majority was in Harrison County, where the so-called Citizen's Party, formed in 1878, managed to upset the county Republicans by stuffing ballot boxes and using intimidation,” according to the Handbook.
Similar efforts spread to other counties, especially in East Texas.
In other parts of Texas, the target was Hispanic citizens.
For example, according to the Handbook, “… organizations such as Dimmit County's White Man's Primary Association, established in 1914, disfranchised Mexican Americans in local elections.”
In 1902, the Legislature established the poll tax statewide.
The argument for it: fighting voter fraud.
It’s effect was clear: to limit voting by overwhelmingly poor blacks and Hispanics.
When repealing it was put on the ballot as a constitutional amendment in 1963, about 10 million were disenfranchised by it.
Voters rejected the amendment to repeal the poll tax.
It was ended in federal elections the following year by Congress, and in all elections in 1966 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The most blatant racist voter suppression was codified by the state Legislature in 1923 when it passed a law prohibiting Negroes from voting in the Democratic primary.
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down the law as a violation by the state of Texas of the constitutional right to equal protection.
But it hinted at another route, and Texas took the hint.
In 1935 the high court unanimously upheld a rule promulgated by the Democratic Party itself that excluded blacks.
The party was, said the Supreme Court, a private organization with a right to decide who could belong.
A considerably different Supreme Court would overturn that decision in 1944.
Voter fraud is also a great Texas tradition.
Perhaps most famous is the stench surrounding Lyndon Johnson’s election to the U.S. Senate in1948 by 87 votes out of nearly a million.
Legend has it that a very late count of Box 13 in Jim Wells County provided 200 phony votes to put LBJ over the top.
But in the second volume of his exhaustive biography of Johnson, Robert Caro wrote this:
As for San Antonio — San Antonio where Lyndon Johnson ‘rode the polls’ on Primary Day himself to oversee the vast West Side — Johnson’s deputies on the West Side themselves boast of the votes that were ‘switched’ for him there, and the estimate most frequently given is 10,000.Ballot box stuffing, vote switching, dead people voting in alphabetical order — this is the stuff of Texas legend.
Missing from the legends are large numbers of voter fraud by impersonation.
Journalist Laura Starecheski reported in the Texas Tribune this week that during a legislative hearing on Texas’ new voter ID law the attorney general’s office presented a report on election fraud from the previous eight years.
Only one case involved a voter at the polls, the kind that could be prevented by voter IDs.
That’s one out of more than 86 million votes cast during those years.
The report didn’t give details, so Starecheski tried to reach the fraudulent voter.
He didn’t want to talk, but his mother did.
What happened, she said, was that her son went to the polls and gave his name.
The poll worker found his name on the voter list and told him to sign next to it and go vote.
But the name belonged to her late husband, who had the same name.
It was a mistake, the mother said.
Her husband had died some time earlier and shouldn’t have been on the list.
So there you have it: In the ID law currently in controversy and in court are both sides of two strong Texas traditions.
But does it relate more to voter fraud or voter suppression?
History holds the answer.