27 December 2020

Athens, TN, Voting Procedures, 1940

From The Fighting Bunch, by Chris DeRose (St. Martin's, 2020), Kindle pp. 39-41:

The main attraction in downtown Athens in July 1940 was a model voting machine, purchased by the county court and on display so that people could gain familiarity before Election Day. A representative from American Voting Machines of Jamestown, New York, was on hand to answer questions.

A voter would walk up to the machine and pull a lever that closed a curtain around them. Next to every candidate’s name was a little lever. The voter would switch the lever next to the name of their preferred candidates. When they had voted for every office, they pulled a lever on the side of the machine, which recorded their votes, reset the levers, and opened the curtain. The running tally was recorded on a counter behind a locked panel. At the end of the day, the panel would be opened, and the results displayed for everyone to see. The voting machines weighed around eight hundred pounds and were not easily stuffed or swapped.

The county court had the legal discretion on whether to use voting machines. Nevertheless, John Cate and Reuel Webb, the Democratic members of the election commission, made public statements that the machines would not be used. The Republican candidates filed suit on July 11. The hearing before Chancery Judge T. L. Stewart included extensive testimony about “voting robots” and how they worked. Stewart ordered the election commission to use the machines.

Absentee voting was another matter of dispute. State law permitted voters who would be gone from the county on Election Day to mail their ballot. Strict rules governed the process: the election commission was required to write down the name of everyone requesting a ballot, in ink, on a publicly posted list; all absentee ballots had to be received by registered mail; the envelope containing the ballot had to be preserved; the date it arrived had to be recorded next to the name of the requester; and a certificate for each vote had to be delivered to the official in charge of that voter’s precinct. The election commission ignored every one of these laws.

Without these safeguards, commissioners could create as many absentee ballots as they wanted and place them in ballot boxes, in the names of real people, dead people, and fictitious people. Ralph Duggan, the Republican member of the election commission, sued his colleagues to force them to follow the law.

Duggan, thirty-one, was the son of the previous sheriff, Davy Crockett Duggan. He had gone to law school at the University of Georgia, where he had roomed with Herman Talmadge, son of the state’s governor and himself a future governor and senator. Unlike Talmadge, a fiery segregationist, Duggan was gentle, polite, and believed the laws should apply equally to everyone. Duggan returned home in 1936 and opened his own practice. The tall, lanky lawyer had a reputation for honesty and integrity even among his political adversaries.

The trial court sided with Duggan, holding that the Democratic election commissioners had to comply with absentee ballot rules. Duggan was surprised shortly thereafter to find Chief Deputy Pat Mansfield at his house. Mansfield, the physically imposing former railroad man, had an order from the Tennessee Supreme Court, overturning the decision of the trial court. He wanted to deliver it personally. The supreme court gave no explanation.

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