Kris Seago
Political Science
Material Type:
Full Course
Community College / Lower Division
Creative Commons Attribution
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The History of Voting in Texas


The History of Voting in Texas

Learning Objective

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Analyze modern and historical controversies around voting, including how states can promote and impede voter participation


This section discusses modern and historical controversies around voting, including how states can encourage or impede voter participation.

The History of Voting in Texas

Picture of Poll tax reciept
Figure 7.3 Houstonian James Wheeler received this hand-written receipt for paying his
$1.50 poll tax in 1963. The poll tax was abolished by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Carl Smith, whose office handled this transaction, remained Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector until 1998.
Image Credit: Andrew Teas, License: CC BY

Since its admission to statehood in 1845, Texas has participated in every U.S. presidential election except the election of 1864 during the American Civil War, when the state had seceded to join the Confederacy, and the election of 1868, when the state was undergoing Reconstruction.

In its first century, Texas was a Democratic bastion, only voting for another party once – in 1928 when anti-Catholic sentiment against Al Smith drove voters to Republican Herbert Hoover. A gradual trend towards increasing social liberalism in the Democratic Party, however, has turned the state (apart from Hispanic South Texas, the Trans-Pecos, and several large cities) into a Republican stronghold. Since 1980 Texas has voted Republican in every election.

Historical Barriers to Voting in Texas

Texas shares with many other states – especially with former Confederate states – a history of the systematic disenfranchisement of blacks, Latinos, and poor whites. In the aftermath of the Civil War, many former Confederate states (and some others as well) instituted new restrictions on voting in order to disenfranchise former slaves. In response, Congress passed and the states ratified the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution which became known as the Civil War Amendments to counteract efforts by southern elites and their allies to reestablish political rule by disenfranchising black voters – thereby denying them representation in government.

The 13th Amendment (1865) abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment (1868) and 15th Amendment (1870) to the U.S. Constitution were passed to guarantee, respectively, the "privileges and immunities" and the right to vote of all U.S. citizens.

With the end of the Reconstruction in the 1870s, the nation politically abandoned uniform enforcement of the Civil War amendments. With reduced federal enforcement of the rights protected by the amendments, many southern states enacted Jim Crow laws designed to restrict or prevent African American voter participation. Unlike other states, Texas never legislated two of these tools: literacy tests and the grandfather clause. Instead, Texas suppressed black voting using poll taxes and the white primary.

Poll taxes added a direct out-of-pocket transaction cost to voting by charging money to vote. Texas adopted a poll tax in 1902. It required that otherwise eligible voters pay between $1.50 and $1.75 to register to vote – a lot of money at the time, and a big barrier to the working classes and poor. Poll taxes, which disproportionately affected African Americans and Mexican Americans, were finally abolished for national elections by the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1964. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, ruled that poll taxes in state elections were unconstitutional.

The white primary in Texas treated the Democratic Party as a private club whose membership could be restricted to citizens of Anglo heritage. It originated as a change in Democratic Party practice early in the twentieth century as a way to disenfranchise African Americans, and later in south Texas, Mexican Americans. In 1923 the white primary became state law. After numerous legal challenges to successive versions of the law the Legislature had passed to preserve the practice, the U.S. Supreme Court finally and decisively prohibited the white primary in the 1944 case Smith v. Allwright.

The ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964 ended poll taxes, but the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965 had a more profound effect. The act protected the rights of minority voters by prohibiting state laws that denied voting rights based on race. The VRA gave the attorney general of the United States authority to order federal examiners to areas with a history of discrimination. These examiners had the power to oversee and monitor voter registration and elections. States found to violate provisions of the VRA were required to get any changes in their election laws approved by the U.S. attorney general or by going through the court system. However, in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Supreme Court, in a 5–4 decision, threw out the standards and process of the VRA, effectively gutting the landmark legislation.


Picture of Voting Right Act
Figure 7.4 The Voting Rights Act (a) was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson (b, left) on August 6, 1965, in the presence of major figures of the civil rights movement, including Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. (b, center). I​​​​mage Credits:
Public Domain; (b) Public Domain

Voter Decision Making

When citizens do vote, how do they make their decisions?

The election environment is complex and most voters don’t have time to research everything about the candidates and issues. Yet they will need to make a fully rational assessment of the choices for an elected office. To meet this goal, they tend to take shortcuts.

One popular shortcut is simply to vote using party affiliation. Many political scientists consider party-line voting to be rational behavior because citizens register for parties based upon either position preference or socialization. Similarly, candidates align with parties based upon their issue positions. A Democrat who votes for a Democrat is very likely selecting the candidate closest to his or her personal ideology. While party identification is a voting cue, it also makes for a logical decision.

Citizens also use party identification to make decisions via straight-ticket voting—choosing every Republican or Democratic Party member on the ballot. In some states, such as Texas or Michigan, selecting one box at the top of the ballot gives a single party all the votes on the ballot. Straight-ticket voting does cause problems in states that include non-partisan positions on the ballot. In Michigan, for example, the top of the ballot (presidential, gubernatorial, senatorial and representative seats) will be partisan, and a straight-ticket vote will give a vote to all the candidates in the selected party. But the middle or bottom of the ballot includes seats for local offices or judicial seats, which are non-partisan. These offices would receive no vote, because the straight-ticket votes go only to partisan seats.

Pic of Straight ticket voting
Figure 7.5 Straight-ticket option on Texas ballot in U.S. election in 2008.
Image Credit: Lars Plougmann, License: CC BY SA


In 2010, actors from the former political drama The West Wing came together to create an advertisement for Mary McCormack’s sister Bridget, who was running for a non-partisan seat on the Michigan Supreme Court. The ad reminded straight-ticket voters to cast a ballot for the court seats as well; otherwise, they would miss an important election. McCormack won the seat.

Straight-ticket voting does have the advantage of reducing ballot fatigue. Ballot fatigue occurs when someone votes only for the top or important ballot positions, such as president or governor, and stops voting rather than continue to the bottom of a long ballot. In 2012, for example, 70% of registered voters in Colorado cast a ballot for the presidential seat, yet only 54% voted yes or no on retaining Nathan B. Coats for the state supreme court. Voters make decisions based upon candidates’ physical characteristics, such as attractiveness or facial features.

They may also vote based on gender or race because they assume the elected official will make policy decisions based on a demographic shared with the voters. Candidates are very aware of voters’ focus on these non-political traits. In 2008, a sizable portion of the electorate wanted to vote for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama because they offered new demographics—either the first woman or the first black president. Demographics hurt John McCain that year because many people believed that at 71 he was too old to be president.

Hillary Clinton was criticized in 2008 on the grounds that she had not aged gracefully and wore pantsuits. In essence, attractiveness can make a candidate appear more competent, which in turn can help him or her ultimately win.

Aside from party identification and demographics, voters will also look at issues or the economy when making a decision. For some single-issue voters, a candidate’s stance on abortion rights will be a major factor, while other voters may look at the candidates’ beliefs on the Second Amendment and gun control. Single-issue voting may not require much more effort by the voter than simply using party identification; however, many voters are likely to seek out a candidate’s position on a multitude of issues before making a decision. They will use the information they find in several ways.

Retrospective voting occurs when the voter looks at the candidate’s past actions and the past economic climate and makes a decision only using these factors. This behavior may occur during economic downturns or after political scandals, when voters hold politicians accountable and do not wish to give the representative a second chance.

Pocketbook voting occurs when the voter looks at his or her personal finances and circumstances to decide how to vote. Someone having a harder time finding employment or seeing investments suffer during a particular candidate or party’s control of government will vote for a different candidate or party than the incumbent.

Prospective voting occurs when the voter applies information about a candidate’s past behavior to decide how the candidate will act in the future. For example, will the candidate’s voting record or actions help the economy and better prepare him or her to be president during an economic downturn? The challenge of this voting method is that the voters must use a lot of information, which might be conflicting or unrelated, to make an educated guess about how the candidate will perform in the future. Voters do appear to rely on prospective and retrospective voting more often than on pocketbook voting.

In some cases, a voter may cast a ballot strategically. In these cases, a person may vote for a second- or third-choice candidate, either because his or her preferred candidate cannot win or in the hope of preventing another candidate from winning. This type of voting is likely to happen when there are multiple candidates for one position or multiple parties running for one seat.

In Florida and Oregon, for example, Green Party voters (who tend to be liberal) may choose to vote for a Democrat if the Democrat might otherwise lose to a Republican. Similarly, in Georgia, while a Libertarian may be the preferred candidate, the voter would rather have the Republican candidate win over the Democrat and will vote accordingly.

One other way voters make decisions is through incumbency. In essence, this is retrospective voting, but it requires little of the voter. In congressional and local elections, incumbents win reelection up to 90 percent of the time, a result called the incumbency advantage. What contributes to this advantage and often persuades competent challengers not to run? First, incumbents have name recognition and voting records. The media is more likely to interview them because they have advertised their name over several elections and have voted on legislation affecting the state or district. Incumbents also have won election before, which increases the odds that political action committees and interest groups will give them money; most interest groups will not give money to a candidate destined to lose.

Incumbents also have franking privileges, which allows them a limited amount of free mail to communicate with the voters in their district. While these mailings may not be sent in the days leading up to an election—sixty days for a senator and ninety days for a House member— congressional representatives are able to build a free relationship with voters through them. Moreover, incumbents have exiting campaign organizations, while challengers must build new organizations from the ground up. Lastly, incumbents have more money in their war chests than most challengers.

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