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An oped article published in the Austin American-Statesman March 11 says the much-amended Texas Constitution, adopted in 1876, is ripe for a modernizing overhaul.
Charles Reed of Waco writes: "In the 135 years since its ratification, the constitution of 1876 has been amended 467 times in a haphazard fashion. The result is a constitution that is chaotic, incoherent, lengthy, unwieldy and full of dead wood." An effort joined by Reed to draft an overhaul is touted at http://reorgcon2011.com/.
Among the rotten timbers still in the constitution, the article says: "Jim Crow provisions about the poll tax and restrictions on women having the right to vote."
That tax and male-only voting are long-gone practices. So this claim piqued our curiousity.
Reed, a retired federal employee who was once Waco’s mayor, initially told us that what while such language remains in the infamously unwieldy constitution, "it’s, of course, not operable language."
He referred us to Article VI, titled "Suffrage." When we looked at the latest version of the constitution posted online by the Texas Legislative Council, we found that the article opens with language that bars from voting people who are under 18 or who have been found mentally incompetent by a court or convicted of a felony. The article makes no specific references to the poll tax or to women voting.
Realizing the tax was prevalent for decades and that U.S. women were not permitted to vote until the 20th century, we turned next to the Handbook of Texas, published by the Texas State Historical Society.
Its entry titled "Woman Suffrage" says Texas women gained the right to vote in party primaries in 1918 through a measure approved by legislators and signed into law by Gov. William Hobby. Some 386,000 women women registered to vote in that year’s Democratic primary, the entry says.
But attempts to give women the vote in all elections were thwarted, the entry says, even after lawmakers in 1919 heeded Hobby’s counsel to send voters a proposed constitutional amendment extending full suffrage to women. Hobby also sought a proposed amendment to take the vote from persons of foreign birth who hadn’t also attained U.S. citizenship through naturalization--and when the two proposed changes were rolled into a single amendment, it lost at the polls.
A month later, according to the entry, the proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution to permit women to vote was submitted to the states. Texas legislators ratified what soon became the federal document’s 19th Amendment, stating that the right to vote shall not be abridged or denied by any state on account of sex.
What about the poll tax, the fee that had to be paid at the polls and helped deter low-income and minority citizens from voting for a long time? The handbook’s entry on the state’s election laws says the 1964 elections were the first "in which no poll tax was required to vote in federal elections" due to the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment abolished the poll tax as a voting requirement for president, vice president, presidential electors, U.S. senators and representatives.
In Texas, though, the tax survived for state and local elections until voters in 1966 approved an amendment removing it from the constitution.
Reed suggested we check his statement with David Guinn, a Baylor University law professor. Guinn nudged us to Austin lawyer Bob Heath, who once helped the Texas attorney general draft advisory opinions about legal issues. In an interview, Heath said he doesn’t think Reed’s statement is correct. Like us, he did not find references to women not voting and the poll tax in the current constitution.
In a follow-up conversation, Reed said, "I recognize I was wrong in saying that. I was going based on my memory" in the op-ed article. However, he said his main point holds: The constitution has a lot of "inoperable language" that needs to be pruned, such as outdated references to bonds for special districts that have been paid off. "I made a mistake in using the wrong example," Reed said.
We rate his statement False.
Interviews, Charles Reed, Waco, March 11 and 14, 2011
Interview, Bob Heath, Austin lawyer, March 14, 2011
Charles Reed, oped article, "To meet Texas' needs in the 21st century, the constitution requires revisions," in the Austin American-Statesman, March 11, 2011
The Handbook of Texas, Texas State Historical Association, entries, "Woman Suffrage" and "Election Laws," Texas State Historical Association (accessed March 11, 2011)
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