As the political rule-of-thumb goes, most people don’t pay attention to upcoming national elections until after Labor Day. Here’s a look back at an era gone by – or is it? As another saying goes, “some things never change”.
Today we are accustomed to the color-coded political classification system of “red states” vs. “blue states”. The concept, however, is not a new one. Following the Civil War, political parties in South Texas used a system to help illiterate or Spanish-speaking voters utilize ballots which were printed in English. This practice started in the 1870s and continued until the 1920s.
The system revolved around what was called “boss rule”. In that era, elections were a big deal (they still should be, but that’s another story) with each side attempting to outdo the other with parades, bands and dances. Democrats Stephen Powers and James G. Browne organized the Democrats of Cameron County into a Blue Club, with about one hundred members, both Anglo and Hispanic.
The Republicans of Cameron County founded their own organization, the Red Club. Surrounding counties soon organized their own Red and Blue (“Colorado y Azule”) Clubs. Again, here is where not much has changed, for the Blues’ success depended on the votes of Mexican Americans, Mexicans living in Texas AND Mexicans living on the other side of the border.
Essentially, the Mexican vote was “bought” since the dances were held with all kinds of merriment and libation, where the attendees were “taught” how to vote. In 1902 a new direct primary system was developed, so after being taught how to vote the Mexicans would receive poll-tax receipts. It was also common for voters to receive transportation to and from the polls, especially those who lived in remote areas.
A Mexican alien need only declare his intent to become a citizen (whether he actually did or not I would imagine) to be allowed to vote in elections held in those counties along the border. Hundreds of Mexicans would be brought to the county clerk offices of those border counties, declare their intent to become U.S. citizens and then were shuffled off and allowed to vote.
To further assist these aliens in voting “correctly” the ballots were color-coded: red for Republican and blue for Democrat (although in some counties the coding was reversed). Party officials and interpreters were on hand to make sure the aliens voted according to the officials’ preference. Of course, this made the whole voting process a total sham with the ballot boxes controlled by party or “boss rule”. However, that didn’t stop the practice from continuing until 1927.
Typically, on the day before an election was held, potential voters assembled in town and were fed plenty of food and liquor – and maybe a little cash too. In Starr County, the Blues were Republicans and the Reds were Democrats. The Reds had been in power since 1868 and in 1898 the Blues were challenging. W.W. Shely, a former Texas Ranger and sheriff of the county since 1884, was the leader of the Reds. Shely had already deputized about one hundred officers to guard the polling places and work for the Democratic ticket.
Complaints were filed alleging that mescal, an illegal alcoholic beverage, had been smuggled in from Mexico, presumably to ply voters with liquor the day before the election. John Spalt, a Customs Inspector, met up with two suspected smugglers and attempted to search them until a Democrat candidate for county clerk, Fred Marks, showed up to intervene. Marks fatally wounded Spalt in the back and was jailed. A few days later one of the special Blue deputies shot and killed Joe Magena, a Red, in retaliation.
During the 1906 elections, Starr County was the scene of more political violence, followed by another incident in early 1907:
On January 27, 1907, Gregorio Duffy, the unsuccessful candidate for sheriff, was gunned down in a saloon by the elected sheriff and his two deputies. This killing, the most notorious murder in the history of Rio Grande City, was far more than just a barroom fight, but a fitting culmination for an extremely violent county election that had impact far beyond its boundaries. This election that began with the murder of Judge Stanley Welch on its eve and saw the killing of four unidentified Mexicans by the Texas Rangers before the count of the ballots was complete, defined South Texas for generations. The Starr County Election of 1906 marks the violent and painful transition to Boss Rule. (Origins of Boss Rule in Starr County, by Hernán Contreras, p. 3)
Texas border counties operated a highly-charged political environment, especially during the post-Civil War era. The Jaybird-Woodpecker War was another example of explosive Texas politics. Today, political parties battle back and forth in the mass media, social media and Twitter. In days gone by, the two parties often settled their differences at the point of a gun – today we can be thankful that some things DO change.