The 2020 election has had me thinking a lot about how elections in Jeff Davis County were conducted 30, 40, 50 years ago, although my experience only goes back 47 years to 1973.
In the 70s, 80s and 90s in Jeff Davis County, election tabulations were an event of great interest and significance among the population here. Once the polls closed, the courthouse was teeming with people eager to learn the results of the voting.
Many carried with them notepads on which, as the total on each voting machine was announced, they’d jot down the numbers in the races that were of particular interest to them. I, too, was one of the note takers but I was interested in all the races, not just one or two as most folks were.
The note takers were candidates, candidates’ spouses, their children, friends, neighbors, supporters …. whatever. They wanted to know those numbers…. they wanted to be the first to know who won and who lost. The election was of great importance.
When the election workers gathered in the main courtroom to tally the absentee ballots, the gallery was generally full of people, many of whom were dutifully jotting down each vote as it was announced.
The late Doshie Buford, longtime Judge of Probate Court in Jeff Davis County, was the reigning queen of the voting and the vote count. She didn’t really participate in the counting but, rather, she assembled a small army of capable, dedicated citizens tasked with the responsibility to count the votes and count them accurately. And she carefully and attentively watched them perform their task until the last vote was counted. The poll workers were a dedicated bunch. They loved their work and they took great pride in doing that work honestly, fairly, with great integrity and, above all else, accurately. When the tallying was finished, and more than once I and those workers left the courthouse at the end of the task with the next day’s sun rising over the horizon, the citizens of Jeff Davis County were comforted by the knowledge that our elections had been conducted with the greatest of honesty and integrity.
I can’t remember who all those people, I called “tallyers” were, but as best I can recall there were a half dozen or more of them. I remember well that Lonnie Roberts, Rhonda Byrd, Miss Doshie’s daughter Kim Buford, I think Clerk of Court Eula Mae Edwards, perhaps Algena Smith were among those tallyers.
They each lorded over a huge banner-like tallying sheet where, as the totals on each machine were announced and the votes on each absentee ballot were announced, they’d instantly cross-check their tabulations. A half dozen checks. When the individual absentee ballots were called out, one among their number would announce at what place their number tally was. Every vote constituted a “tick mark” on their tally sheets, 1 through 4 and when the fifth tally crossed the four previous ticks, he or she would loudly announce “TALLY” for all to hear. If any of the other other tallyers’ count didn’t agree, the counting was stopped immediately until the discrepancy was solved. The process gave observers, myself included, a sense of great comfort to know that these conscientious people were, indeed, accurately and honestly counting the votes cast by their fellow citizens.
The center of attention in those days was the late Rudolph Kelly. For years he served as one of Miss Doshie’s most dedicated election workers. Most people of my age, know well who Rudolph Kelly was. But, today, there are many in our midst that have no idea. Rudolph was a big man, with a big heart, and a booming, unmistakeable voice. He had two jobs during the vote-counting process. First, as each of the voting machines was locked down, and opened up, the total votes for each candidate were revealed for all to see. Rudolph was always the first to see those totals. He would look at each race, each total and loudly announce the numbers. And each tallyer would write down those numbers on their giant tally sheets and, before the absentee ballot counting began, they compared their numbers and assured themselves of their accuracy before proceeding.
That’s when Rudolph’s second job kicked in. As the poll workers retired to the main courtroom at the courthouse, the tallyers spread out with their tally sheets and Rudolph took a seat next to a big box containing all the absentee ballots. One by one, he’d open the ballots, discard the envelope which revealed the voters’ names, open the ballot itself and loudly read off the name of each candidate for whom the voter had cast his/her ballot.
The tallyers would loudly announce where their totals were and every one of those tallyers were assured they were all on the same count. No errors. No discrepancies.
It was true democracy at work and today, with all the seeds of doubt being sewn about the election of 2020, I wish we could go back to those days of comfort and assurance about the vote count.
I recall vividly at one of those long nights of vote counting at the courthouse, when Rudolph made a mistake. Over the years, I had learned that when Rudoph announced the votes on the first voting machine he opened, that his announcements on the remaining dozen or so machines would reveal pretty much similar results in each race. The first machine would always set the general pattern and each subsequently opened machine would follow that pattern.
But one year, a number in a race that Rudolph announced didn’t fit that pattern and it caught my attention.
In that particular race, each of the first few machines Rudoph opened revealed a number in the 60s, 70s, or 80s for that particular candidate. But, inexplicably, the number Rudolph announced for the next machine was 100 votes higher than the other machines. It made no sense to me.
So, after the crowd of onlookers left to congregate in the courtroom for the absentee ballot counting, I stepped into the suspect voting machine and observed that, indeed, Rudolph’s announcement in that race was 100 votes off. He had looked at the total votes which, as I recall, read 78 or thereabouts. When he first looked, he had seen the seven as a one. He loudly proclaimed “one” and then, realizing his mistake, he continued with “seven, eight.” The tallyers heard, “one-seven-eight” and they wrote that number on their tally sheets. The number should have been “seven-eight.”
So, I called Miss Doshie over to the machine and explained what I had observed. She looked and agreed and talked to each of the tallyers to make sure they would correct the mistake.
It was an honest mistake, by a supremely honest man. The mistake was corrected and no harm was done.
I’m glad Rudolph wasn’t around to witness the debacle of the 2020 election. For if he had made his honest mistake in 2020 rather than some 35 years ago, he would have been labeled as an election cheat, dishonestly and fraudulently trying to rig the election.
Our election workers of today are of the same mold as those workers from decades ago. They deserve our respect and our thanks for a job well done.