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A Quaint Story about How We Used to Have Democratic Elections

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Marj Creech February 20, 2008

When I was in South Carolina for the Democratic Primary on January 26th, a Saturday and not Tuesday, like so many elections all across the country, I ran into a voter who remembered what it was like to vote, before electronic voting machines came to SC. She had just that day voted for Hillary, she said, on a paperless touch screen machine--no paper ballot, no paper trail of any kind. When she asked about a paper trail, the poll judge said, "Oh, we post the results of the election right here on that door after we close down." In our country where obtaining unofficial precinct results anywhere near the night of the election, much less having them posted at the precinct, is becoming more and more difficult, I suppose SC is ahead of many states on that vital citizen checkpoint, even if they have to trust that their electronic vote was somehow counted correctly.

But when this SC voter said, " I remember when we used to hand-count all the ballots; I was the Democratic Party Precinct Committeeperson..," my ears perked up and I asked if I could interview her later that night. This was not hard since she was my own sister, Carol Creech, and I was staying at her house, on my way from Ohio to Florida. Here is the story she told me, as we sat on the couch in the living room, with several cats draped around us.

It was 1978, the midterm in Greenville. It was not a simple ballot; there were state and county offices, Senators, and several issues. The big one for me was getting a resolution before the legislature to extend the time for states to approve the Equal Rights Amendment. You know I had been working for that forever! That's how I got selected to be the Precinct Committeeperson, my involvement in the Democratic Party. Oh yeah, back then the parties ran their own Primaries. The Democrats were the main party--the Republicans had NO foothold in the state then.

The election was in a gym. I was responsible for running the Primary in my precinct, so I had to do everything—reserve the gym, remind them it was time for the election, get the tables, set them up, get the polling stations set up--the booths were made of scrap lumber with plain cotton muslin as the walls. I had to set them up with whoever I got as volunteers. Yeah, I had to recruit all the poll workers and counters for my precinct; I got on the phone and called everybody in the precinct; in those days you actually knew your neighbors. I got whoever I could--for four hours, even two hours--they were happy to do it if they could; it was for their precinct, after all. No, there was no pay, not even for me! I even got two Republican neighbors to help; they said it was fun. The Republicans didn't even have a Primary in those days! Oh and I didn't even stay for the whole day, I had to go to work! I came back at lunchtime and after work to help, and close down, and count the votes. Every poll worker and counter had to sign an oath that they'd perform their duty honestly and fairly.

It was simple. Before the poll opened, the County Democratic head honcho brought me the metal ballot box, filled with the blank ballots. The box was locked and there were two keys. He had one and he gave me the other. I signed for the blank ballots and the provisional ballots. We had a list from the Democratic party of who was registered in the precinct. The voter would show their registration card and a poll worker would find their name, initial beside it, and the voter would sign another sheet numbered with the ballot numbers. If we couldn't find them we would phone the county and they'd try to find the person, anywhere in the county. If they couldn't find them, we gave them a provisional ballot. There were three columns in our poll book pages. One to be initialed when they voted in the first election, then the next two in case we needed a run-off election to get a majority vote. Two weeks later we did have to go through the whole process again in a run-off. And mostly the same people volunteered again.

They had pencils and a small shelf in the voting booths and voters checked a box next to their choices. The ballots were printed in Greenville by a local print shop. They tore off the numbered perforated slip on the ballot for us to save, and then folded their ballot once and put it into the box themselves. Whoever was in line at 7 pm when we closed, got to vote.

After they all voted, we locked the doors, quickly took down the booths and opened the ballot box and dumped all the ballots out on the table. At that point we had to have five poll workers. One person read the choices off, just in the order they were, and another person watched. The other three wrote down the votes as they were called out, and made marks on the tally sheets. I told them to use the box method: you draw the sides of a box, then a slash through the box, instead of five hash marks, because hash marks can be misread. I learned to do that when I worked for the Census Bureau. Then we went over our totals and if all three people had the same number, that was the total. If even one was off, we recounted that race, until all three agreed.

"Did it take all night?" I asked. "No, it took about one hour." (I acted incredulous and she said, "Well, maybe two hours.")

The results were signed by me and one witness. That page had carbon copies--I think we posted one on the door and I took one home to keep.

"So you could still have it?" She glanced around the house as if it might be in a box in a closet somewhere.

I put the original results paper back in the box along will all the ballots and the registration lists, and locked it back up and took it out to the trunk of my car. I drove to the Curb Market building in downtown Greenville. There a mob greeted me as soon as I walked in the door, carrying my box. There were candidates, supporters, officials, reporters, and TV cameramen, all asking me, "What precinct, what precinct?" We were often first because we were so close to the Reporting Station.

After I checked in and gave them my key, the Democratic County Chair took my box, opened it and took out the paper of the results and read it to a guy standing on a stepladder in front of a tall chalkboard with all the precinct numbers written on it. Ballot boxes would come in all night till about 1 or 2 am. Sometimes I'd stay until the races were pretty much decided, because it was all so exciting. It was just fantastic, all those people watching the results get recorded and waiting to see who would win. The ERA resolution failed later in the SC legislature, but another race was important also. This particular election was for governor of SC. Dick Riley, who also happened to live in my precinct, won his re-election, which was a good thing since he later became Secretary of Education under Clinton!

I could actually feel a tingly excitement as she told me about election night, where all the stakeholders could actually watch the votes being totaled up, in chalk, before their eyes.

She said that after a few years SC went to punch cards, then after that, touchscreens. And SC went Republican somewhere in there. She thought it may have been the "Religious Right."

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Ok. I admit it. I'm not really a cow, except in an alternate reality. But wearing a cowsuit has gotten me attention where normally no one would have given me the time of day, for instance, at a Democratic convention in Columbus, of the "inner (more...)
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