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“Unless you pay your poll tax hired Mexican voters will select our city’s next administration,” proclaimed the unsigned letter to the El Paso Times on January 20, 1905. [1]

The Texas Constitutions of 1869 and 1871 enacted a poll tax of $1 on all men, 21 to 60. The tax funded public schools, but although the term “poll tax” was used, the tax was not meant as a requirement to cast a vote. However, the Texas legislature amended the Constitution in 1902, requiring voters to pay an annual tax of $1.50 to $1.75 to be allowed to vote. [2]

The poll tax was not only a means to fund government operations, but it was also used to disfranchise minority voters across the southwest. However, the reverse also happened, it allowed Mexican nationals and other unqualified voters to cast votes in El Paso. Party operatives paid the poll taxes for people so they could leverage their votes for their candidates. In addition, El Paso’s officials encouraged illegal votes by hiring Mexican laborers to work on city projects. City officials demanded the poll tax receipts, both to bolster the city’s revenues as well as to allow them to keep labor costs down by using Mexican labor on city projects.

University of Texas professor, Walter Buenger told The Dallas Morning News that the poll tax “was high enough to discourage people from voting, particularly African-Americans, Tejanos and poor whites.” Those who supported the poll tax argued that it prevented voter fraud and ensured a better class of voter. Texas voters were not required to be a citizen to cast a vote prior to 1902. [3]

However, after 1902, many Mexicans used the poll tax receipt to work in El Paso.

Nonetheless, the poll tax was used to keep Black and Mexican American citizens from voting. In addition to the poll tax, there were also the literacy tests and the Ku Klux Klan. [4] Although poll taxes were ended in 1966 by Proposition Prop 7 on a vote of 659,604 in favor of repealing the poll tax to 466,199 against, it wasn’t until 2009 that the Texas Constitution was officially amended on a resolution sponsored by then-State Representative Alma Allen, a Black Democrat from Houston. [5]

The poll tax was ostensibly to ensure that only authorized voters cast votes. However, abusive party politics used the poll taxes as means to win elections by paying the poll taxes for voters, whether they were eligible to vote or not.

On January 7, 1903, the El Paso Herald Post reported that there was a “rush on the city and county collector’s office for the payment of poll tax for Mexicans.” By early January, “over a thousand poll taxes” had been paid and officials predicted “that more than” 2,500 poll taxes were expected to be collected. Although each citizen was to pay their own poll taxes, two factions of the El Paso Democratic Party were collecting people and paying their poll taxes. “The bosses and ward heelers are working just as hard as ever to get their men in line and the silver dollars are being passed in to the hard working collectors and deputies in a steady stream,” read the newspaper account. One faction, the Morehead faction asserted that it had the majority, claiming having all the “genuine Mexican voters” and they were not taking others, they proclaimed. [6]

According to the newspaper account, “shortly before noon” on January 7, 1903, the county had issued 810 receipts for poll taxes and the city had issued 1,157. The newspaper added that “not over a hundred certificate [sic] issued at either place were for Americans.” It cost each political faction three dollars for each poll tax they paid per individual they recruited – one for the city and the other two for the county. [7]

The Morehead faction came about because of a school board vote to take control of the schools. C.R. Morehead was the leader of the Morehead faction. The two battles of the factions were between Democrats because the “republicans have not had representation sufficient to make” for partisan politics. C.R. Morehead essentially “controlled” the school board. [8]

Central to the internal political discord was a fight for control of the city’s politics by taking control of the El Paso Democratic Party. On one end of the controversy was former El Paso mayor Ben F. Hammett and Felix Martinez against the Morehead faction. Going into the 1903 primaries, Morehead had a $10,000 war chest to challenge Hammett. [9] Interestingly it was the Anglo, Morehead, that was accused of using Mexican citizens to bolster his chances at the ballot box, and not Martinez who was supporting the Anglo mayor.

Typically, determining legal voters came down to socio-economic profiling. When asked, City Clerk Jose Escajeda, who oversaw the “anti-Morehead faction,” and was paying the poll taxes for the voters they were recruiting, said that “the judges can tell whether a voter is a citizen or not…by his clothes, his hat, and his general personal appearance,” which “will give him away”. [10]

The controversy over Mexican voters casting votes in El Paso’s elections did not end with the Morehead controversy. In 1915, the issue was brought up again. A 1915 grand jury investigation alleged that “close to 1500 illegal poll tax certificates” had been found. The grand jury had received evidence that showed that “a careful check of the places of residence,” for to the poll tax receipts, found that in “hundreds of these places, no such person was found at the address given; that hundreds of others, the address was a vacant lot; in hundreds of other places, the residential address given to the collector happens to be, on investigation, a store or some place where no body lives.” [11]

The grand jury also received evidence that individuals working at the Juárez Racetrack and others who had not “not lived in the city the required six months” had also “secured poll tax certificates.” According to the newspaper report, “may Mexicans have been told by certain Mexican leaders to vote, regardless of what the grand jury has done, and that they will be defended in court if they are arrested.” [12]

It is unclear if the “Mexican leaders” referred to El Paso Hispanic political leaders, or citizens of México inserting themselves into the politics of El Paso.

What may interest some readers, as the debate on Texas’ recent election laws continue to be debated, during the 1915 grand jury investigation into illegal voters, it found that some voters “received exemption certificates by mail without requesting them.” The exemption certificates were for “men past the age of 60, who do not have to pay poll taxes” who are supposed to request their exemption certificates. The newspaper reported three men who were not 60 years or older receiving the exemption certificate without requesting one. [13]

In another example, the grand jury found that a poll tax receipt had been issued to a man that listed him as having “been born in Mexico,” but that a record of his naturalization was not found. In another case, an American citizen was issued a poll tax receipt for an address in West Overland Street where he had “never” lived. He was, however, found to be living on Avenida Lerdo in Juárez. [14] Poll tax receipts controversies did not end in 1915.

Two years later, in 1917, the Draft Board was asking for volunteers for the “sessions of selective draft boards for the purpose of investigating aliens who are claiming exemptions on the grounds they are not American citizens,” although they had cast votes in previous elections. In one case, it was alleged that a man who claimed the exemption was found to have had “two poll tax receipts in his pocket,” one was from “El Paso and the other Los Angeles.” [15]

In 1921, the El Paso Herald Post blared that “many Mexican citizens, employed as laborers in various municipal departments of El Paso, are in possession of Texas poll tax receipts which, it is said, they planned to use in order to vote in the city election in April.” [16]

According to the newspaper article, many of the Mexicans who had poll tax receipts had done so for work. The investigation revealed that holders of the fraudulent poll tax receipts had paid for them because it was required so that they would get paid for their city work. The Mexicans with poll tax receipts were “firm in their assertion that they were told to go and get poll tax receipts before they could work,” by city officials. One Mexican laborer explained to investigators that when he asked how the tax money was to be used, he was “told that it was to build schools and good roads.” [17]

The city’s manager of waterworks, A. H. Woods said, “We require all employes [sic] of the waterworks to show poll tax receipts, so we may know they are citizens of Texas and that they are doing their duty as taxpayers.” In defending the use of poll tax receipts, Woods added that the city accepts the poll tax receipt “as an evidence of his citizenship,” adding that “it would take an army of detectives to investigate every laborer who applies for work with the city.” [18]

The poll tax was not the only impediment to minority voters in El Paso. After the Civil War, White leaders in Texas sought to keep Black voters from the polls. Although poll taxes helped to keep Black and other minority voters from the polls, it did not keep all minorities away as some paid their poll taxes each year. According to the Texas State Historical Association, to keep Black voters away from the polls, Texas Democrats enacted a White primary law. The law barred Black voters from voting in Democratic Primaries. The Democratic Party was the dominant party at the time and the law effectively disfranchised Black voters. [19]

In our next issue we will explore how El Paso’s Democratic Party worked to keep Black voters away from the polls for 20 years.

Footnotes:

  1. Untitled letter to the editor, El Paso Times, January 20, 1905, 4.
  2. Brianna Stone, “Why did Texas have a poll tax, and when did it end? Curious Texas Investigates,” The Dallas Morning News, September 25, 2018. https://www.dallasnews.com/news/curious-texas/2018/09/25/why-did-texas-have-a-poll-tax-and-when-did-it-end-curious-texas-investigates/
  3. Brianna Stone, “Why did Texas have a poll tax, and when did it end?”
  4. Brianna Stone, “Why did Texas have a poll tax, and when did it end?”
  5. Brianna Stone, “Why did Texas have a poll tax, and when did it end?”
  6. “Morehead Men Have Most Poll Tax Receipts,” El Paso Herald Post, January 7, 1903, 1.
  7. “Morehead Men Have Most Poll Tax Receipts,” 1.
  8. “School Slate Proposed, Caucus Meets and Proposes Reelection of Present Members,” El Paso Herald Post, April 30, 1901, 1.
  9. “Movement To Beat Morehead For Mayoralty,” El Paso Herald Post, December 13, 1902, 1.
  10. “Morehead Men Have Most Poll Tax Receipts,” 1.
  11. “Near 1500 Illegal Poll Taxes Issued In El Paso This Years,” El Paso Herald Post, February 15, 1915, 3.
  12. “Near 1500 Illegal Poll Taxes Issued In El Paso This Years,” 3.
  13. “Near 1500 Illegal Poll Taxes Issued In El Paso This Years,” 3.
  14. “Near 1500 Illegal Poll Taxes Issued In El Paso This Years,” 3.
  15. “Little Interviews: More Volunteers At Draft Board Sessions Needed, Mexicans With Poll Tax Receipts Aliens, Claim,” El Paso Herald Post, August 10, 1917, 6.
  16. “Many Citizens Of Juarez Caught At The Bridge With El Paso Tax Poll Receipts,” El Paso Herald Post, February 19, 1921, 1.
  17. “Many Citizens Of Juarez Caught At The Bridge,” 1.
  18. “Many Citizens Of Juarez Caught At The Bridge,” 1.
  19. Brianna Stone, “Why did Texas have a poll tax, and when did it end?”

Martin Paredes

Reporting on public corruption, border politics, immigration and public policy in El Paso since 2000.