The voting landscape has changed radically over the years since Travis County’s establishment, from voter eligibility to voting methods. Since 1840, the Travis County Clerk has worked to provide fair and efficient elections, and the Travis County Tax Assessor Collector and Voter Registrar is entrusted with the duty of registering eligible individuals to vote. Travis County voters, along with the officials they elect, help shape our county and our community’s history.
Voter information table, c. 1972. Photo No. PICA 06963, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

A Brief History of Travis County Elections

Travis County was established on January 25, 1840. The first election of county officials was held in February of 1840, when the population was reported to be 856. Eligibility to vote was determined by the Constitution of the Republic of Texas. At that time, only white and Hispanic men over the age of 21, who were citizens of the Republic of Texas, were eligible to vote.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed slavery, and the 14th Amendment granted African Americans the rights of citizenship in 1868. However, this did not always translate into the ability to vote, and black male voters were systematically turned away from state polling places, though some were able to vote in local elections. Congress passed the 15th Amendment in 1870, which prohibited denial of the right to vote due to race, color, or previous servitude.

In 1918, primary elections were opened to Texas women for the first time. In March of that year, a bill was passed by the Texas Legislature to permit women to vote in primaries. The law did not go into effect for 90 days, giving women only 17 days in which to register to vote before the July primary; in those 17 days, 386,000 Texas women registered to vote. In 1919, the Texas Legislature ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and Texas women were officially given the right to vote.

Due to continued voting discrimination received by African Americans and other minorities throughout the United States, particularly in the south, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. This legislation prohibited racial discrimination in federal, state, and local elections.

In 1966, the Texas Legislature required voters to register, in person or by mail, with the county Tax Assessor once each year. Persons eligible to register and vote had to be 21 years of age, residents of the state for one year, and residents of the district or county for six months.

The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971. In Texas, the requirement for annual voter registration was removed.

In the 1970s, Congress found that many states prevented citizens who did not speak English from voting by not providing election materials other languages. In 1975, Congress amended the Voting Rights Act by adding Section 203, which required that non-English speaking citizens be provided election materials in their language.

Today the population of Travis County totals over 1.3 million people. The County Clerk is tasked with conducting special, primary, and general elections for Travis County and governmental entities throughout the area. The voting landscape has changed radically over the years, and it is the Travis County Clerk’s job to adapt to these changes and provide fair and efficient elections that meet state and local requirements.

The Tax Assessor Collector is the designated voter registrar for Travis County. Voter registrar responsibilities include accepting applications for voter registration, issuing voter certificates, maintaining voter registration lists, and verifying petitions for local option elections. Voters must be at least 18 years old, a U.S. Citizen, a resident of the county in which they intend to vote, and be registered to vote 30 days before an upcoming election. There is no length of residency requirement before registering to vote in Texas.

Voting Systems

Because the U.S. Constitution gives states the job of running elections, methods of voting in the United States vary. Historically, five types of voting methods have been used in the United States: hand-counted paper ballots, mechanical lever machines, punch card machines, scanned paper ballots, and direct-recording electronic devices.

Hand-counted paper ballots were marked by hand, placed in ballot boxes, and then counted, usually in the precinct where they were cast. Early paper ballots were handwritten on slips of paper, and later paper ballots were preprinted; votes were not required to be private.

Mechanical lever machines, first used in the 1890s, were operated by the voter, who indicated their choice by depressing a lever next to the preferred candidate. They were relatively tamperproof and allowed for completely secret balloting through use of a curtain. By the 1930s, use of mechanical lever machines was widespread, and some states were still using the machines as recently as 2009.

The punch card system was developed in the 1960s and relied on punch cards to record votes. In the most common version of the punch card machine, a blank pre-scored card was inserted into a holder; to vote for a candidate, the voter used a stylus to dislodge a chad and create a hole in the card. When the voter was done, the ballot card was deposited in a ballot box. Tabulation was done either by a computer equipped with a punch card reader or an electromechanical punch card tabulating machine. Ballots with write-ins were tabulated by hand.

Scanned paper ballots were also first used in the 1960s. The technology used to scan paper ballots was essentially the same as what was used to score standardized tests. The ballot itself was marked in a private booth with a black pen to darken a circle next to the preferred candidate’s name. Ballots were then returned to the central election office at the end of Election Day, where they were scanned by a high-speed scanning machine.

Direct-recording electronic (DRE) machines first came into use in the 1970s. The earliest DREs were basically electrical versions of mechanical lever machines, but today, they are portable computers that have been configured to display ballot choices and record votes electronically. Ballot choices are increasingly offered on a computer touch screen, but some systems still rely on a paper display. Most modern DREs allow the voter to indicate a vote by pressing on the touch screen, although some systems use push buttons.

Travis County’s current voting system combines touch screen technology with a paper ballot backup. Prior to electronic voting, Travis County used hand-marked systems that were slow to tally election results. The Help America Vote Act in 2002 made millions of dollars available for counties like Travis County to buy electronic voting systems. Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir was one of the first clerks in the country to adopt DREs, at which point Travis County fully shifted from paper ballots to electronic voting.

Poll Taxes

Adopted in Texas in 1902, poll taxes were fees citizens paid to vote. The poll tax was meant to discourage people from voting, particularly African Americans, Tejanos, and poor whites. Voters had to pay the tax before voting and bring the receipt to the ballots as proof of payment. Politicians justified these laws by claiming that implementing a poll tax would regulate elections, prevent voter fraud, and ensure a better class of voters.

The Texas Senate attempted to repeal the poll tax in 1949 and 1963 but failed both times. While the 1964 ratification of the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited payment of a poll tax to vote in any federal election, Texas did not immediately follow suit. The state ended poll taxes for local and state elections with a 1966 resolution, but it didn’t formally approve the amendment until 2009, when Rep. Alma Allen, a black Democrat from Houston, sponsored a resolution to ratify it.

Local Option Elections

A local option is the power granted to a political subdivision (typically a county or municipality) to determine by popular vote the local applicability of a law on a controversial issue. In Texas, this usually relates to the sale of alcoholic beverages.

Local option as a method of alcohol control made a resurgence after the Civil War. Rather than allowing state-wide prohibition, the 1876 Texas Constitution specifically gave counties, cities, and towns exclusive power to decide whether to ban alcoholic beverages.

Through local option elections, prohibition swept through north and central Texas from 1893-1908. Many rural communities went dry, usually overcoming significant opposition to prohibition centered in the more urban county seats. In 1908, Texas contained 152 dry counties, 66 partially dry counties, and 25 wet counties. Travis County was a partially dry county, allowing the prohibition decision to be made at the precinct level.

In 1919, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, banning the manufacture, sale and transport of alcoholic beverages, and the Texas government quickly followed suit with their prohibition amendment that same year. In 1918, before prohibition, Texas had 201 dry counties, 43 partly dry counties, and 10 wet counties.

National prohibition ended in 1933, followed by the end of statewide prohibition in 1935. The sale of alcoholic beverages became licensed in early 1936, although enforcement of prohibition had waned before that time. All counties in Texas returned to the same status that they had in 1918, until new local option elections could be held.

Today, although Texas has statewide laws governing most functions of the alcoholic beverage industry, voters still participate in local option elections to decide the types of alcoholic beverages that can be sold in their communities. These elections are held by counties, cities, or individual Justice of the Peace precincts.

Travis County Trailblazers

First person in office:

James W. Smith, Chief Justice, 1840

James W. Smith was Travis County’s first elected official. He was elected by the Republic of Texas Senate as Chief Justice of Travis County on January 30, 1840, five days after Travis County’s establishment. Judge Smith was killed one year later by Comanche Indians just west of his Pecan Street (now West 6th Street) home. The office of Chief Justice was later known as that of the County Judge.

First African American in office:

William H. Holland, Commissioner Precinct 1, 1878-1884

On the heels of the Reconstruction Period, in which the South was rebuilt after the Civil War, African Americans became active participants in the political, economic, and social life of the South. During that time, some 2,000 African Americans held public office throughout the United States, from the local level all the way up to the U.S. Senate.

Born into slavery, William H. Holland became Travis County Commissioner of Precinct 1 in 1878 and held the office until 1884. He was active in both public policy and politics, also serving as a state representative and as a delegate to the Texas Colored Men’s Convention and two National Republican Conventions. After leaving the Commissioners Court, Holland played a significant role in establishing the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Institute for Colored Youth in 1887.

First Mexican American in office:

Richard Moya, Commissioner Precinct 4, 1970-1986

A native Austinite, Richard Moya was the first Mexican American elected to public office in Travis County, serving as County Commissioner of Precinct 4 from 1970-1986.

As Travis County Commissioner, Moya helped to reform county services and hiring practices, opening doors for minorities. He helped centralize county hiring by playing a pivotal role in the establishment of the county’s first office of Human Resources. This promoted diversity in county hiring; before 1970, the county employed few minorities.

Moya also helped establish a rural transportation program and supported the development of the emergency services program that became known as STARFlight. He pushed for a child abuse unit in the District Attorney’s office, and greatly improved the county’s mental health services.

After leaving the Commissioners Court, Moya worked at the Texas Department of Agriculture as the Director of Field Operations, and later as Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Ann Richards. Moya passed away in 2017 and is remembered as an activist and political trailblazer who led the way for Latinos to follow him into public office.

First Asian American in office:

Judge Todd T. Wong, County Court at Law #1, 2015-present

The Honorable Judge Todd T. Wong was elected in November 2014 and serves as Judge of Travis County Court at Law #1. He is the first Asian American elected county-wide in Travis County.

A graduate of Baylor University and the University of Texas School of Law, Judge Wong had over 28 years of civil litigation experience with firms in Dallas and Austin prior to being elected.

In addition to his duties as a civil court judge, Judge Wong has extensive community service and leadership experience. He serves on the board of Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas (currently as President elect), the Austin Bar Foundation, community advisory board of the local APAPA (Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs), and is former President of the Lloyd Lochridge Inn of Court.

He has previously served as a director for the Austin Bar Association, president of the Asian American Bar Association of Austin, president of the Austin Young Lawyers Association, director of the Texas Young Lawyers Association, board member of the Central Texas chapter of the American Red Cross, community advisory board member of the Junior League of Austin, and a member of the Leadership Austin class in 1993.

First woman in office:

Maud Douglas, County Superintendent of Public Instruction, 1912-1916

Travis County’s first female elected official was Maud Douglas, who served as the County Superintendent of Public Instruction from 1912-1916. Elected several years before women were allowed to vote, she was the county educational officer, in charge of managing state and county funding dedicated to schools.

First African American woman in office:

Judge Brenda P. Kennedy, County Court at Law #7 – 1987-2002; 403rd District Court, 2002-2022

The Honorable Judge Brenda P. Kennedy earned a J.D. from the University of Texas at Austin School of Law in 1981. After graduating from law school, Judge Kennedy began her legal career as an assistant District Attorney for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, the first African American female to hold the position.

In 1987, Kennedy became judge for the Travis County Court at Law #7, the first African American woman elected to Travis County office. In 2002, Judge Kennedy was elected as 403rd District Court Judge, and she also served as the Presiding Judge for the Travis County Criminal Courts. She retired from the bench in 2002.

During her 35 years of service, Judge Kennedy was elected by the citizens of Travis County on nine different occasions. In addition to her work as a criminal court judge, Judge Kennedy worked with the Travis County Drug Court system and the Felony Youth Offender program, which she began in 2011.

First Mexican American woman in office:

Dolores Ortega Carter, County Treasurer, 1987-present

Dolores Ortega Carter is the first Hispanic woman elected to a countywide office in Travis County. Ortega Carter is Travis County’s first female, and current, County Treasurer; she has held the position since 1987. She is also the longest serving county treasurer in Travis County history.

A graduate of Texas A&M University, Ortega Carter began her political career working for Senator Kent Caperton in his district office in College Station. During that time, she campaigned for the Senator, State Treasurer Ann Richards, and State Comptroller Bob Bullock. Her work with Bullock brought her to Austin.

Ortega Carter was elected Travis County Treasurer and began serving in 1987. As County Treasurer, she is the chief custodian of county finance and is charged with the safekeeping and investing of county funds. She works with the Legislature to pass bills improving the ways Travis (and all counties) invest public funds. The money that taxpayers entrust to county government is invested carefully, so that returns on those investments can augment county finances without increasing taxes.

Ortega Carter has served as the President of the County Treasurers Association of Texas and President of the National Association of County Treasurers and Finance Officers. She is a graduate of Leadership Austin and has served on numerous boards and commissions, including the Austin Rape Crisis Board, Samaritan Center Board, County Treasurers Association Board, National Association of Counties-Audit Committee, and various City of Austin Recreation Boards.

First Asian American woman in office:

Judge Dimple Malhotra, County Court at Law #4, 2019-present

The Honorable Judge Dimple Malhotra is the presiding judge of County Court at Law #4. She is the first elected judge of South Asian descent and first elected female Asian judge in Travis County history. Court #4 is a specialized court in Travis County that almost exclusively hears misdemeanor family violence cases.

Born in New Delhi, India, Judge Malhotra has dedicated her entire career to helping those affected by family violence. Prior to her election to the bench, Judge Malhotra worked as Chief Prosecutor of the Family Violence Unit in the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, Chief Prosecutor of the misdemeanor domestic violence court in the Travis County Attorney’s Office, and chief of the Protective Order Division in the County Attorney’s Office. She has also worked at non-profit domestic violence agencies in Austin and the San Francisco Bay area.

As Judge of Court #4, Judge Malhotra handles thousands of misdemeanor cases every year. She also hears requests for protective orders based on allegations of sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking. Additionally, she oversees the Phoenix Court, which is a diversion court for defendants arrested for prostitution. The court acts as a problem-solving court that provides alternatives to conviction and incarceration for individuals charged with prostitution so they can successfully and safety transition out of prostitution.

Election Day

Americans first began the custom of weekday voting in 1845, when Congress passed a federal law designating the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November as Election Day.

Before then, states were allowed to hold elections any time they pleased within a 34-day period before the first Wednesday in December, but this system had a few crucial flaws. Knowing the early voting results could affect turnout and sway opinion in states that held late elections, and those same last-minute voters could potentially decide the outcome of the entire election. Faced with these issues, Congress created the current Election Day in the hope of streamlining the voting process.

But why a Tuesday in November? The answer stems from the agrarian makeup of 19th-century America. In the 1800s, most citizens worked as farmers and lived far from their polling place. Since people often traveled at least a day to vote, lawmakers needed to allow a two-day window for Election Day. Weekends were impractical, since most people spent Sundays in church, and Wednesday was market day for farmers.

With this in mind, Tuesday was selected as the first and most convenient day of the week to hold elections. Farm culture also explains why Election Day always falls in November. Spring and early summer elections were thought to interfere with the planting season, and late summer and early fall elections overlapped with the harvest. That left the late fall month of November—after the harvest was complete, but before the arrival of harsh winter weather—as the best choice.

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