Red River Scrapbook: If elected ...
By Edward Southerland
May 8, 2019
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If elected....
by Edward Southerland

As we get ready to go to the polls, it seemed appropriate to recall the way voting used to be before machines took over. It was more personal at every level, more hands on, from actually marking the ballots to counting them. Much of that has changed. There is still a certain excitement of anticipation on election night, but it is not so close to home.

Fannin County Courthouse in the 1950s
The first Tuesday following the first Monday in November, Election Day all across the land, was no big deal in Fannin County in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Democratic Party primary in the late spring had decided most of the state and local races, and the general election in the fall was just a formality.

The big time for politics was in the spring. On the third Saturday in May, every two years, the voters went to the polls to select the candidates to carry the Democratic Party banner in the general election.

The Democrats had run things since who laid the rails. I doubt that any Republican had ever won office in Fannin County; more than likely, the GOP had never even carried a precinct. Fannin was one of the staunchest “yellow dog Democrat” strongholds anywhere south of the line.

Even Al Smith, the wet, Catholic, Yankee from New York, carried dry, Protestant, thoroughly Dixie, Fannin County in 1928, while much of the rest of Texas went for Herbert Hoover. No doubt Fannin folks liked Ike in 1952 and 1956, but they voted for Adlai Stevenson nevertheless.

All over Texas during the weeks preceding the primary, governors, congressmen, legislators, judges, sheriffs, and all manner of local viziers, satraps, and potential poohbahs wooed their constituents with bluster, buttons, and barbecue. A seasoned camp follower, not restricted by too tight a conscience or too tight a belt, could wander the state for weeks living fat and happy on political pork, not from a barrel, but fresh off the hog or steer. These freeloaders, and there were many, were the bane of the losers, who would complain, “Somebody’s been eatin’ my meat and voting for the other guy.”

The barbecues were a treat, the speeches and rallies were lively and diverting, but the real excitement came on election night. In the days before preference polls and entrance polls and exit polls, you had to wait until someone actually counted the votes to find out who won and who lost.

Counting votes was not a simple matter. Smaller counties, like Fannin, did not use voting machines. They used big paper ballots, sometimes as big as a newspaper, and the voters marked their choices by hand.

After the polls closed, the tally clerks—there were a half dozen or more in a large precinct—would lay the ballot sheets out flat on a table, five or six at time, using a yardstick or a piece of lattice molding as a guide to keep the sheets lined up row by row, race by race. The election judge would call off the races, the clerks would scan across their ballots and call out the votes, and other clerks would mark the count down on a tally sheet.

After a few rounds of counting, the clerks would compare their counts. If all tallied, they would move on. If not, they had to count the ballots again. When they finished with all the ballot sheets, the clerks again checked their counts and again all the figures had to balance. Counting several hundred ballots by hand was not an easy task, and more than one election judge spent a long night trying to reconcile an errant tally.

Counting was done at the polling place in each precinct when the polls closed. There were twenty or so scattered around the county. The city precincts had hundreds of voters, while some of the rural boxes counted only a couple of dozen names on the registration lists. Beset by the apathy that seeps into a society that has never had its rights seriously challenged, these small boxes often counted only four or five ballots for the day. Nevertheless, they rated an election judge and at least one assistant, both paid for by the party. The party didn’t mind. It is an axiom of all things political that you can never have too many jobs to hand out.

Election night was a time for everybody to share in the excitement of the republic at work. To that end, the courthouse had a public address system with loud speakers aimed at all four sides of the square. In the fall, KFYN used the system to broadcast the out-of-town football games of the Purple Warriors. The station went off the air at sundown, so the play-by-play came back to Bonham over a telephone line and out over the P.A. system. People who could not make it to the game would park around the square, sit in their cars or on the broad courthouse lawn and listen to the game. On Saturday morning, a transcription of the broadcast played on the radio.

On election night, the radio station set up a news service teletype in the courthouse and announced the local returns as the precincts reported in and the state tallies as they appeared on the ticker. In between, they played music and read commercials for the local sponsors of the service.

Saturday night in the county seat was the big night of the week any time of the year. The farm families all came into town on Saturday to do their shopping, go to the movies, and visit friends and neighbors from around the county. To accommodate the crowds the stores stayed open until eight o’clock.

At the American Theater, you could take in previews of coming attractions, a newsreel, a cliff-hanging serial episode, a selected short subject, a cartoon and a cowboy movie for sixty cents—thirty-five cents if you had a student discount card. Popcorn cost a dime. Top that off with a ham sandwich and an ice cream soda from the drug store or a chicken-fried steak with cream gravy from one of the cafés, and you had a Saturday night to hold you through the week.

The even bigger crowds guaranteed on election night brought forth expanded offerings. Beneath the mantle of the big trees that shaded the courthouse grounds and under the steady bronze gaze of James Butler Bonham, the “back to the Bible” boys competed for the attention and the alms of the multitudes. They lauded the Lord, damned the devil, warned the wayward, and proclaimed the imminent arrival of the final reckoning.

Despite the short time remaining before the glorious ascent to the ever after, they still pitched the onlookers for donations to carry on the good work here on earth. Between exhortations, they would break into gospel hymns, some plaintive, some joyously exuberant, accompanied by an assortment of banjos, guitars, accordions, and other musical instruments.

Inside the courthouse, things were bustling. When the polls closed and the votes counted, the election judges from all over the county brought the ballot and stub boxes, tally sheets, and official return forms to the county clerk’s office in Bonham. The stub boxes and original certified returns went into the clerk’s vault. The sealed ballot boxes went upstairs to the district clerk’s big walk-in vault for safekeeping. They were kept for a year and a day in case someone challenged the election results.

The task of toting the boxes and paper work up and down the stairs fell to three or four runners—teenage boys hired for five dollars a night and all the Coca-Colas they could drink. My father was a member of the Democratic County Committee that was in charge of the local primary elections, and I inherited a runner’s job by right of primogeniture when I was thirteen. I worked at least three election nights, becoming the chief honcho at the last one, able to pick my own crew.

Copies of the official returns went to the district judge’s office on the second floor. On election night, those chambers were the command center for the county committee. Behind the clouds of blue cigar smoke, they watched over the democratic and the Democratic process. If the local races were tight, the crowd in the district judge’s office would be calling around the county trying to find out the vote counts in the outlying precincts.

All through the evening, the winners climbed the stairs to this sanctum sanctorum to be congratulated, the losers to commiserate, and the hangers-on to pay their respects to the powers that were and soon would be. One and all they stayed around to imbibe the atmosphere of the place and embrace the bourbon thoughtfully provided by the sheriff from stocks confiscated from the county’s bootleggers and blind tigers.

About nine o’clock Bernie Richie, the rotund manager of the state employment office, would bring over sacks of hamburgers from Keene’s Café, and right behind him were boxes of fresh doughnuts, still warm from the bakery. If the things ran smoothly the whole business was over by 10:30; if it did not, there were frantic calls trying to track down the last of the returns due in the clerk’s office.

At one election, we waited until almost midnight for the East Bonham box to report. The polling officials had counted the ballots over and over, but still could not reconcile the tally sheets. Finally, in exasperation and with caustic side comments concerning the intelligence of the election judge, the county committeemen walked across the street to the city hall, where East Bonham voted, sent the poll officials home and counted the votes themselves.

After the last precinct reported, and the state ticker slowed to a crawl, the committee and friends retired for coffee and political analysis, often lasting late into the night. Church attendance was generally light on the Sunday after election night.

These days we watch the returns on television, and prognosticators announce the winners long before the actual votes are counted. There is not much drama to the night. I think I will see if there is a good black and white movie on television this year.