THE VOTING BOOTH — Actually, this election I am marking my ballot in my breakfast room because the Texas Legislature passed a law in 2011 allowing anyone to vote by mail if they meet certain conditions: must be a mailman, age over 100, having been honorably discharged from military service (the Salvation Army counts) and having an Anglo surname. No, I’m kidding. You only have to be over 90.
This packet contains all kinds of dire warnings to prevent voter fraud which is ironic, not to say moronic, because that huge argument that consumed so much of the last session of the Legislature had nothing to do with voting by mail. The new restrictions were aimed at preventing voter fraud at the ballot box. One problem: no one could find
voter fraud at the ballot box — most examples were anecdotal. It was much ado about posturing.
Throughout Texas ballots will reflect candidates for local offices and local issues: voters in Harris County will be asked if they want to tax themselves to keep the ancient Astrodome. I vote yes because dirigibles are coming back and will need a home in Houston. But every Texas voter gets a chance to vote on amending the state constitution — again. Let me explain. Our current constitution took effect on Feb. 15, 1876, and is the sixth one in Texas history. The previous five were the constitution of Coahuila y Tejas, the 1836 Republic of Texas and the state constitutions of 1845, 1861, 1866, and 1869.
Our last one, the spirit of 1876, was written once Texans threw out the dreaded carpetbaggers who came here during Reconstruction. It reflected the suspicions of government the delegates had formed over the Reconstruction years. They slashed the power of officials along with their salaries and terms of office. They wrote in abolition of voter registration (these were Democrats, obviously), wanted local control of schools, severely limited powers for both the legislature and the governor, low taxation and spending, strict control over corporations, and land subsidies for railroads — the latter two seem contradictory.
Today at 80,806 words, it is among the longest of state constitutions in the nation. As of November 2011 a total of 653 amendments have been proposed, of which 474 were approved by voters and 179 were rejected. However, despite its length, it is not nearly as long as the Alabama constitution nor the California constitution, which has voter initiatives and thus is constantly being changed.
Why is ours so lengthy and so detailed? Simple. Texans don’t like government (pronounced gub-mint) and don’t trust government. This rather cavalier attitude is non-binding when we have a hurricane, fertilizer plant blast or need highways repaired, convicts locked up or our children taught. Otherwise, Texans are rugged individualists, if not blatant hypocrites. So our constitution goes into great detail limiting what our lawmakers can do, and to change the rules they have to ask us for permission. The constitution makes for fascinating reading if, say, you are trapped in a stuck elevator with a life insurance salesman and need a diversion.
Some of these sections have been repealed but there was a section paying for the superconductor supercollider. The document lists treason as a crime and the rights of crime victims – 11 of them. Authorizes Bingo games. Debts are a big deal. The current document prohibits deficit financing for state government, which has kept us out of trouble for years. But it has some loopholes, including a provision that debts may be incurred “to repel invasion, suppress insurrection of or defend the State in war.” This brings up one of the quainter sections dealing with gubernatorial powers: “He (notice not ‘he or she’) shall have power to call forth the militia to execute the laws of the State, to suppress insurrections, and to repel invasions.” Alas, in 1999 the governor lost a key command that goes with the job: ordering out the militia to suppress Indian raids and Mexican bandits. OK, sometimes we take our time to update: provisions for Spanish and Mexican land titles from the Mexican-American War era weren’t repealed until 1969. We had a section dealing with Confederate pensions, and may still.
Texas is real big on water bonds, because page after page of our constitution deals with them. Here’s a section on Dallas County Road Bonds. We have to put everything in writing: The governor is specifically authorized to have use of the governor’s mansion’s furniture. By the way, he or she has to live where the government is meeting, but it doesn’t specifically say Austin. The comptroller and land commissioner have to live at the seat of government. The secretary of state is in charge of the state seal. Pass it on. Up until 1936 the attorney generals salary was set at $2,000 a year. Each county shall have a sheriff. Idiots, lunatics and all paupers supported by any county cannot vote, but apparently an hold office.
Except for treason (treason again?), felony or breach of the peace, all voters are exempt from arrest while voting or going to and returning from voting. So the next time a cop pulls you over for going 60 in a 20, whip out your voter’s registration. Sometimes it’s easier to issue an order than to implement it: The state is to establish and maintain an efficient system of public free schools. In 1871 Texas A&M was established in Brazos County and made a branch of The University of Texas. Hook ‘em! The Legislature can regulate littering of the beaches, which once were open to the public..
Talk about micro-management. Here’s a section abolishing the Lamar County Hospital District. Fixing the tax rate for the Comanche County Hospital District takes up more than a page. Counties may provide workhouses, poorhouses and farms. The lawmakers still have the power to put convicts out in road gangs. And to pass fence laws. And allow for county hide inspectors. But what do we do about Indian raids?
Ashby amends at email@example.com