The Texas Constitution
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The Texas Constitution

September 12, 2019

Our Texas State Constitution is a bloated,
confusing document with nearly 500 amendments. Compare that to the U.S. Constitution which
has only been amended seventeen times since it was adopted. Texas’ amendments cover everything from
who gets taxed for what to whether or not a baseball team can sell raffle tickets. Some of them seem arbitrary. Why couldn’t the legislature deal with this
issue in session? Shouldn’t this just be in the tax code? Why is a one-time-only bond vote included
in our founding document? Some amendments directly violate the U.S.
Constitution. And others are so vitally important it’s
shocking that the original writers didn’t think to include them in the first place. How did it get this way? Well, we have to go back to 1845 when Texas
joined the Union. Our first constitution was similar to the
U.S. version. Short, sweet, and broad enough to allow government
to do its job. A pretty good constitution. But with the Civil War and then Reconstruction,
all that got thrown out the window. During the 1860s Texas went through three
constitutions. By 1869, Texas was under military rule by
the Federal Government. Texas adopted a new constitution that year
but it only passed because confederate sympathizers were barred from voting. That same year Edmund J. Davis, a Republican,
won the governor’s race, barely, and began putting Texas back together in ways many Texans
weren’t happy with. Then, after a controversial election, Davis
lost in 1873. But he contested the results and refused to
give up the Governorship. Democrats weren’t having it. They climbed ladders to the second floor of
the Capitol building and barricaded themselves inside. Davis brought in state troops to occupy the
first floor. The stand off lasted for days before Davis
gave up. But when he left, he locked his office door. The Democrats had to break it down with an
axe. The next Republican governor wouldn’t be
elected for over 100 years. In 1876 Texans approved a new constitution
– the one we still use today. It was a direct reaction to Reconstruction,
an overbearing federal government, and Davis’ “Radical Republicanism.” It outlined a very limited government with
a weak executive branch. The Attorney General, Land Commissioner, and
others are all directly elected rather than appointed by the Governor. The judicial branch was divided in two: criminal
and civil; and all judges are elected as well. But the writers were so focused on preventing
the kind of government control they had suffered in the past that some of their provisions
like a legislature that meets only once every two years make more sense in 19th century
than the 21st. Rules that are so constricting don’t leave
much wiggle room for actual governing. This means we need a lot of amendments. On the one hand that can be good – citizens
get to participate in a more direct democracy. On the other hand we often have to vote on
trivial stuff that should be handled by our elected officials, or our legislators pass
the buck to us to decide controversial issues. Take one of my favorite proposed amendments:
SJR 7 from 1919. On the surface it’s your standard women’s
suffrage vote. But this one was a double edged sword. While it would have granted women the vote
it would have also taken away the vote for another group: non-citizens. That’s right. There was a time in Texas when non-citizen
men could vote but not citizen-ladies. Not surprisingly, that measure failed but
most don’t. Out of 673 proposed amendments over 70% have
passed. And in the last thirty years that rate is
over 90%. Yet every two years, our constitutional elections
have abysmally low turnout – sometimes less than 10%! Texas already has a low turnout rate in general
but without a big name on the ticket to lure us to the polls, most of us don’t participate. But even if we’re not voting for a person
on the ballot, these amendments are proposed by our elected officials – and voting for
or against their policies holds them accountable for their actions. It says, “We’re here. We’re paying attention. And we show up to vote.” See you on Election Day.

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