A Texas bill drew ire for saying it would preserve ‘purity of the ballot box.’ Here’s the phrase’s history.

May 9, 2021
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Early on in a contentious night of debate over a bill that would create new voting restrictions in Texas, state Rep. Rafael Anchía (D) zeroed in on what he called a “peculiar term.” The bill said its purpose was to punish fraud and maintain the “purity of the ballot […]

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Early on in a contentious night of debate over a bill that would create new voting restrictions in Texas, state Rep. Rafael Anchía (D) zeroed in on what he called a “peculiar term.”

The bill said its purpose was to punish fraud and maintain the “purity of the ballot box,” as instructed by the Texas Constitution.

It was a word choice loaded with history, the Democratic lawmaker said Thursday — a phrase that fueled all-White primaries during the era of Jim Crow laws and justified the disenfranchisement of people deemed “unfit to vote.” The bill’s language got to the heart of Democrats’ criticisms: Whatever Republicans said about their intentions, this bill was the latest in a long tradition of keeping people of color from the polls.

Cain told fellow lawmakers that he wanted only to reference the constitutional basis for his legislation and “wasn’t aware of any kind of malicious intent in the use of that term.”

“I guess I thought purity meaning ‘not having fraud in it’ or something,” he told Anchía. The language was quickly stripped from the bill, which passed the House 78 to 64 on Friday.

The word “purity” has a long and racist legacy in the South, historians said. “Purity of the ballot box” is more obscure — several scholars said they were not aware of it being used for discrimination, and it was enshrined in the Texas Constitution of 1876, which did not bar Black people from voting. To others, though, it conjures century-old justifications for excluding Black voters and rules that have disproportionately kept minorities from casting ballots.

“This phrase in a modern bill is racism’s calling card,” Nina Perales, vice president of litigation with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told The Washington Post.

Appeals to “purity of the ballot” helped deprive Black Texans of their right to vote around the turn of the 20th century, said Gregg Cantrell, a history professor at Texas Christian University. Jim Crow laws codifying racial segregation took hold in Texas around the same time, in the 1890s and early 1900s.

Some politicians, Cantrell said, began to appeal to the poorer White voters who had once shared political ground with Black people in the Republican Party associated with emancipation. They tried to lure these White voters back to a Democratic Party that would be a “White man’s private club,” as Cantrell put it.

Democratic primaries became all-White in Texas, first at the local level and then statewide. And voter participation plummeted among Black people in particular as a poll tax — touted as a way to “purify the ballot” — reserved voting for those who could afford an annual fee, Cantrell said.

“Arguments that were made about criminals being ineligible morphed into other groups not being eligible,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. He said these ideas led to discriminatory policies like literacy tests.

Cantrell said a key part of the pitch to poor White voters was, in essence: “We’ll make sure that you are never considered the equal of a Black man again.” Politicians invoked fraud, too — criticizing Black voters as easy to manipulate, subject to the will of their ex-slaveholder landlords. The promise, he said, was: “We will purify the ballot, making sure that they never are able to buy or steal Black votes again.”

Arguments for “ballot purity” took aim at other races, as well, Perales said. Testifying last month before the Texas House Elections Committee, she pointed to the “Ballot Purification League,” which sought to ban almost any form of voter assistance in the early 1900s in the name of stamping out fraud.

Proponents largely blamed Mexican voters, with state lawmaker Joseph Boehmer announcing his intent to “disqualify the Mexicans of the Western and Lower Rio Grande Counties.” The governor eventually vetoed the measure, historian Evan Anders recounts, “on the grounds that it would purge thousands of honest citizens from the political process.”

Then, there is “purity of the ballot box” as an argument for taking away the right to vote when someone is convicted of a felony, experts say. Those policies have disproportionately affected Black people. More than 1 in 7 African Americans is disenfranchised in six Southern states and Wyoming, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform.

“Courts have been hard pressed to define the state interest served by laws disenfranchising persons convicted of crimes,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit observed in 1972. States often turn, it said, to an “invocation that the interest is preservation of the ‘purity of the ballot box.’”

Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University professor with expertise in Texas politics, said he believes Anchía overstated the phrase’s ties to racism, saying it is not widely known. He noted the presence of the phrase in the 1876 Texas Constitution, which allowed Black people to vote — though it excluded people convicted of felonies as well as “paupers” and “lunatics.”

Jillson said he is well aware, though, of such phrases as “racial purity” used in arguments against interracial marriage, as well as paranoia about the “purity” of Southern White women — “the principal excuse for lynching.” One Texas lawmaker declared in 1904: “I believe more in the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race than in the principles of democracy.”

“The idea of writing legislative language that seems to be race-blind but has decided racial impacts is an art form in Southern politics in the 20th and 21st century,” Jillson said.

Many arguments against the Texas voting bill last week centered on the idea that it would effectively discriminate against voters of color. Democrats were able to secure a flurry of amendments but remained fiercely opposed to the measure and vowed to go to court if it becomes law.

The bill would impose criminal penalties on election officials who send unsolicited mail-ballot applications, taking aim at practices embraced last year in Harris County, a diverse area that includes Houston and voted solidly Democratic in 2020. It would also grant new powers to partisan poll watchers, a measure that opponents said could enable voter intimidation. And critics said rules on voter assistance could slap well-meaning people and community groups with felony charges, harming the elderly, non-English speakers and those with disabilities who need aid casting ballots.

“I think language is important, and the language you chose to use in this bill might reflect on one’s intent,”Anchía said as he grilled Cain on “purity.”

Asked Thursday night whether he or the state attorney general’s office had analyzed how the proposed changes could affect minority voters, Cain said he had not looked into it.

Republicans cast the legislation as a way to shore up voter trust but struggled last week to explain the need for new rules in Texas, where the secretary of state has said the 2020 election was secure. Similar bills have passed or are advancing in other GOP-controlled states, as lawmakers continue to back false claims that fraud cost former president Donald Trump the 2020 election.

The Texas Senate already passed a version of the voting bill and needs to agree with the House on final legislation that will go to Gov. Greg Abbott (R). Abbott has tweeted support for “election integrity.”

Despite the amendments removing “purity of the ballot” and softening some measures, state Rep. Ron Reynolds (D) denounced the legislation as “Jim Crow 2.0.”

“I know if you’re an American, you believe that voting is one of the most precious and fundamental rights that we have. … It is the bedrock of our democracy,” Reynolds said Friday on the House floor. “And here we are in 2021 trying to turn back the clock.”

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