No, ‘Purity Of The Ballot Box’ Is Not Racist Election Law Terminology. It’s Historically Accurate

No, ‘Purity Of The Ballot Box’ Is Not Racist Election Law Terminology. It’s Historically Accurate

As the Texas legislature works to strengthen its election laws against voter fraud, leftists are fighting the bill with revisionist history and cries of 'racism.'
Chuck DeVore
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As in Georgia, Florida, and other states, the Texas legislature is working to strengthen the state’s election law against the left’s largely successful 2020 effort to subvert it.

Texas last passed an election code omnibus bill in 2017 (I testified in favor of the bill). That bill, as with 2021’s efforts, aimed to increase safeguards against ballot trafficking, a common tactic that exploits the weaknesses inherent in the mail-in ballot process.

Elections workers ask citizens voting in-person in Texas for a government-issued photo ID. Voting by mail has no such requirement in addition to other vulnerabilities, such as paid ballot traffickers pressuring voters to vote the “right” way or marking the ballot on their behalf.

Using COVID-19 as an excuse to do what they have wanted to do for years, a series of lawsuits led by Marc Elias at Perkins Coie of discredited Donald Trump dossier infamy, attempted to overturn Texas’s limitations on voting by mail. The coordinated effort to “fortify” the 2020 election saw the infusion of $36 million in outside money aimed at boosting mail-in voting in Texas — even to those ineligible to do so under Texas law. Elias already has Texas at the top of his watch list to sue over new “voter suppression” laws.

Further, in Texas as in other states, the 2020 election saw partisan election judges eject authorized poll watchers, preventing them from observing the central count at counties or removing them from polling locations where they were authorized to watch the poll workers. Texas lawmakers are seeking to address these election weaknesses, as they are prone to doing almost every biennial session.

During floor debate on Texas’s SB7 on May 6 and into the early hours of the next day, Democrats claimed the bill’s preamble, making a reference to the need to preserve “the purity of the ballot box through the prevention of fraud in the conduct of an election” had racist origins in Jim Crow-era efforts to prevent black people from voting. Democrats demanded that the offending language be stricken from the bill. It was.

The push to discredit Texas’s omnibus election law overhaul was joined by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) in a letter dated March 25 in opposition to HB6, the House companion to SB7, alleging the bill, “repeatedly uses the phrase ‘purity of the ballot box’ to justify its aim of emboldening partisan watchers. Comparable language regarding the ‘purity of the ballot box’ that is found in the Texas Constitution has deep ties to calls by white legislators’ in the state to ensure the ‘purity of the Anglo-Saxon race’ by, among other tactics, disenfranchising Black Texans.”

The LDF goes on to conflate the phrase “purity of the ballot box” from Texas’s Constitution of 1876 with the efforts to begin disenfranchising black voters in Texas that followed. This is a remarkable accusation. If true, it would redound to the discredit of those carrying the bill and supporting it.

Revisionist History

The problem with this effort at historical revisionism is that the phrase “purity of the ballot box” has a long history specifically referring to concern about corrupted elections.

In 1869, the U.S. House of Representatives, concerned about systemic and longtime fraud in New York, specifically the Tammany Hall political machine in New York City, convened a “Select Committee on Alleged New York Election Frauds.” This committee issued a report that noted, “A republican government that cannot preserve the purity the ballot (emphasis added) is a failure; one which will not is a fraud, and is already resolved into anarchy.”

The footnotes in the congressional report highlight the New York legislature’s constant efforts to battle election fraud:

  • 1838—Noting voters from outside a district, noncitizens voting, voters voting multiple times at different polling locations to the “disgrace of the state and to the manifest wrong of the whole country.”
  • 1844—Citing “great frauds in the presidential election of 1844” in New York.
  • 1857—A New York State Assembly committee declared that the ballot, “Still fails to be a true-reflection of the will of the people.”
  • 1858—Gov. King of New York in his first annual message in reference to the “elective franchise” declares that, “All know that in the city of New York, and measurably in other large cities, it is not pure and often is not free.”
  • 1865 and 1866—“The legislature of New York finally enacted” election reforms, but they “have failed to secure the purity of the ballot-box.”

In this context, the New York State Assembly’s Committee on Grievances was charged with proposing election reforms to ensure “the purity of the ballot box.” The widespread concern over pre-stuffed ballot boxes even led to the invention of a glass ballot box in 1856 to improve election “transparency.”

In an irony perhaps too great for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund to appreciate, an 1867 edition of Harper’s Weekly shows a black voter casting his “first vote” in a glass receptacle designed to ensure the “purity of the ballot box.”

Some 36 years earlier, concerns over ongoing abuses by the Tammany Hall political machine were raised in the Evening Post on June 25, 1831 over the contested Fifth Ward election in New York City.

The paper noted that “The political character of the state and of the Union may be changed, against the will of a majority of the people, by one single ballot box.” The paper observed that local officials, elected by a corrupt election, will go along with the fraud, by “acquit(ing) or pardon(ing) the accused.” The article concluded that patriots should be on guard against a “fatal innovation (i.e., fraud) upon the purity of the ballot box.”

So there is a well-established historical record of the phrase “purity of the ballot box” being used in America long before the advent of the Texas Constitution of 1876 and the gathering onset of Jim Crow laws designed to segregate and disenfranchise black citizens.

As recently as 2005, writing in the leftwing DailyKos, David Mills authored an article entitled, “Equality and Securing the Purity of the Ballot Box.” In it, Mills details his legal complaint against Shelby County, Tennessee for not using paper ballots in compliance with the Tennessee Constitution, which states, “The General Assembly shall have the power to enact laws … to secure … the purity of the ballot box.”

A Viral Exchange

During debate on SB7, Texas state Rep. Rafael Anchía asked Elections Committee Chairman Briscoe Cain, “What was your motivation for using that term ‘purity at (sic) the ballot box’?” Anchía immediately suggested why, saying, “Because that’s a specific set of words that has a lot of meaning in state history,” with the exchange posted in a promoted video of the floor action that’s been seen 3.3 million times.

Cain responded by saying the bill’s preamble is taken from the state’s constitution, to which Anchía asked, “Did you look at the history before using that word?” before claiming that the phrase was specifically employed to disenfranchise black voters after the Civil War. Anchía went on claim that “penal disenfranchisement schemes were put in place, including in Texas, as far back as 1845, to effectively lock African American people out of the political process.”

This last claim from Anchía was certainly remarkable, causing the bill’s sponsor to amend the phrase “purity of the ballot box” out of the bill. But was it true?

1845 was some 20 years before the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution that made it possible for the majority of blacks in America to vote, so it is unlikely that any measure passed then would have black disenfranchisement as its aim. Further, Anchía’s claim ignores the fact that felon disenfranchisement was common in ancient Greece and Rome with the aim of discouraging criminal behavior. This practice was carried forward by medieval England and then brought to the colonies in America.

Even before the American Revolution, disenfranchisement for criminal activity was common, with citizens liable to lose “freeman” status for criminal behavior — again, long before any significant partisan advantage might be obtained by disenfranchising black voters by the Democratic Party.

The whole kerfuffle on the Texas House floor over SB7’s incorporation of the phrase “purity of the ballot box” from Article 6, Section 4 of the Texas Constitution appears even more stilted when reading the section in context: “…the Legislature shall provide for the numbering of tickets and make such other regulations as may be necessary to detect and punish fraud and preserve the purity of the ballot box…”

In fact, the 1875 debate over the Texas Constitution shows no evidence that the phrase “purity of the ballot box” had any meaning beyond concern over election fraud. This language is in perfect harmony with the common concerns of the day (and now) regarding ballot box irregularities.

It had no racial meaning in this context, although it is possible that some politicians borrowed the common phrase at a later date to justify their own evil intent — just as the Bible’s reference to slavery was used by some in the Antebellum South to justify slavery, though with a far weaker theological claim than that deployed by abolitionists who also used the Bible to argue the fundamental humanity of slaves and thus, their inherent rights.

In short, Democrats’ claims of the racist origins of the phrase “purity of the ballot box” utterly fail the historical test. As with The New York Times’ 1619 Project, this effort attempts to create a compelling “history” knit from vaporous lies with the aim of frightening Republicans away from passing election reforms needed to safeguard Texas’s elections against fraudulent exploits.

Chuck DeVore is vice president of national initiatives at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and served in the California State Assembly from 2004 to 2010.

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