Do you recall when winning in the Democratic Party primaries was “tantamount to election,” and that was the phrase automatically cranked into newspaper stories?
Were you there after those summertime elections when a huge “tote board” was erected on the south steps of the courthouse? And the courthouse square would be filled with cars that brought in folks from all over the county who stood, sat or stretched out on the lawn while results were posted by voting precinct as each counted box was brought in. It was sort of like a mass picnic with less food.
Some of my earliest memories are of being my father’s messenger from the courthouse to the Mirror office, where he was stationed as the Texas Election Bureau’s Upshur County correspodent. Russ Laschinger would be waiting by the telephone to call Dallas with the box-by-box returns I brought him.
I was not yet in high school, but I have probably not ever had a job that made me feel more important. Texas waited breathlessly for my messages — or so I thought.
WONDERING ABOUT the timeline for when all that changed, I did a little research.
I knew that William P. Clements was elected in 1978 as the first Republican governor since the Texas Reconstruction ended in 1874, was defeated in 1982 by Democrat Mark White, then served another 4-year term before Democrat Ann Richards defeated Republican Clayton Williams for governor in 1990.
An essay by Carolyn Barta in the 1996 Texas Almanac was headlined “1994 Elections: A Rising Tide of Republicanism.” George W. Bush had just defeated Mrs. Richards for governor, and Ms. Barta wrote that “Republican leaders were predicting that, after 1994, the GOP would become the majority party in Texas by the turn of the century.”
A SHREWD prediction, it turned out. As of this week, Republicans held every statewide office and controlled the Legislature. The Handbook of Texas was an excellent resource to trace the political changes that brought Texas to this point.
I learned that it wasn’t until 1918 that a primary election runoff became compulsory for all state and district offices, and not until 1947 that this applied to all county offices. For some years before 1918, the Democratic state convention picked the nominees, based on whomever got a plurality in the one primary. The first primary was held in July and the runoff in August of even-numbered years.
Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson’s unsuccessful run for the presidency in 1960 brought about special election laws enacted for his benefit in 1959.
ONE LAW moved the dates of the primary elections from July and August to the first Saturdays in May and June. This allowed Johnson to be nominated for reelection to the U.S. Senate and simultaneously to have his name on the ballot as a presidential candidate.
The law was subsequently used to allow Lloyd Bentsen to run for vice president and senator in 1988, when another Texan, George H. W. Bush, was elected president.
You may recall, since it has been often repeated, what President Johnson told his aide Bill Moyers after he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964: “I think we’ve just delivered the South to the Republican Party for the rest of my life, and yours.”
Since the useful citizen Bill Moyers is still alive, well and broadcasting a public television program every Friday night, that prediction is still pending.
ACCORDING TO the Handbook, LBJ’s opponents resented the permanent changes in the primary arrangements, but the Legislature has not repealed the law except for changing the time of the primary and runoff. Since 1988, primary elections have been held the second Tuesday (“Super Tuesday”) in March to conform with primary elections in other Southern states.
The election of 1964 was the first one in which no poll tax was required to vote in federal elections, thanks to the 24th amendment to the Constitution, but the tax still survived for state and local elections. So, in 1964 Texas counties had to provide different ballots for voters qualified for all elections and for those voting only in federal elections.
Early in 1966 the poll tax was ruled invalid for all elections.
Many historians credit the poll tax as a tool that kept black people from voting for decades in the 20th century. But there were also Democratic Party rules with this intent. Between 1923 and 1944 federal court decisions struck down each of these rules, and since 1944 African Americans have been admitted to the Democratic primaries.
IN 1966 the Legislature required voters to register, in person or by mail, with the county tax assessor once each year between Oct. 1 and the following Jan. 31.
In 1971 the Legislature did away with the annual registration requirement and provided, instead, a continuing registration system, whereby voters were automatically registered after participating in primaries or elections. A law passed in 1973 gave all persons 18 years of age all the privileges hitherto granted those 21.
Neither the change in registration laws nor the vote for 18-year-olds came voluntarily, according to the Handbook, which says all changes in the election laws were fought bitterly by the Legislature and came only after U.S. Supreme Court decisions against the Texas position and amendment
THERE HAVE BEEN other changes in recent decades, major and minor.
Laws passed in 1941 and 1949 barred Fascists, Nazis, Communists, and other subversives from the ballot and exacted loyalty oaths from all elected officials and other officeholders. The loyalty oath was found to be unconstitutional, and the other provisions are no longer part of the election code.
Hard as it is to imagine today, anti-German feeling was so strong in the wake of World War II that in 1919 the then-governor, William P. Hobby, vetoed the University of Texas appropriation for its German Department.
Early voting is so popular today that as many as 60 percent of all votes may be cast in Texas before the deadline Friday. It was not ever thus, of course.
ABSENTEE voting was provided by the Legislature in 1925. The citizen had to swear why he could not vote on election day, mark his ballot in the presence of a notary public or a county official, and return it at least three days before the election. It was not until 1987 that any qualified voter could cast a vote early for any reason, including convenience.
This week and on Nov. 4 all voters have the option of voting a straight party slate at the top of the ballot. In this connection a change in the law was passed in 1951 and used only once; candidates of one party could also be filed by another party in general elections.
In the election of 1952 the Republican party cross-filed all but one of the Democratic party’s candidates for statewide office to make it easier for Democrats to vote for Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican candidate for president.
As the Handbook of Texas notes, this action no doubt helped the general carry the state, and caused the Democrats to demand an end to the cross-filing privilege. It was repealed in 1955.
IT WASN’T what helped General Eisenhower get my vote. I’m chagrined to recall that I had a worse motive than party loyalty for choosing him.
Those were the days when Texas was still “in play.” I was living in Fort Worth, and I had a chance to hear both the general and the Democratic nominee, Gov. Adlai Stevenson, speak in close-up settings: on the courthouse square in Denton, and next to the Will Rogers Coliseum, an easy walk from our Fort Worth apartment.
It was clear to me that the World War II planner of D-Day was going to win, and I hated to see my first-ever vote go to a loser.
I hope I’ve been more judicious in my choices as the years have passed. But it makes me wonder if lowering the voting age was a good thing.
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