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VOTE COUNTERS’ HI-JINKS SEND WINNER HOME IN DESPAIR

By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian

Election reforms did not come to Georgia and Charlton County any too soon. Some of the antics which took place in the vote-counting would shame a bartender.

Such was the case back on September 10, 1958, when the county had just gone through a red-hot primary campaign between Ben Rodgers and George Crews for a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Rodgers, the incumbent, was seeking his third two-year term, and Crews, a retired state highway employee, who lived in Winokur, had waged a rough-and-tumble campaign during the three months leading up to the election.

Back then there were no voting machines in the county, only the long paper ballots which had to be marked with a pencil encircling the name of the candidate of the voter’s choice.

When the polls closed at 7 o’clock in the evening, election workers began readying the Charlton courthouse for the expected horde of anxious supporters of each of the candidates, and the curious, that would crowd the corridors and lawns as the election results came in from the outlying precincts.

Since the slow, tedious tallying of the paper ballots often lasted into the following day, a public address system was put in place in the vote-counting room. A microphone was placed on the table in front of John Harris, who would call the vote while others marked the tally sheets. A poll watcher would double-check Harris’ call by reading over his shoulder.

Loudspeakers were placed on the courthouse lawn so that many sitting in their autos out front could also hear the count and get an indication of the way the vote was going. Several sat at tables, marking their own tally sheets for the benefit of the crowd.

One has to have been there to appreciate all of the color that went into election nights back then. The evening had its seamier side as corridors of the courthouse reeked with the smell of wine and cheap whiskey. Some had imbibed too much and became quite rowdy as they sought trouble.

In the middle of this carnival atmosphere, the vote counters set about their all-night job without even pausing for supper. In that inner sanctum would gather the usual dozen who would help those actually counting. Such things as removing and straightening the paper ballots from the wooden ballot boxes would be done to “speed up” the counting.

That particular evening the rural precinct returns came in first: Winokur, Uptonville, St. George, Traders Hill, Moniac and St. George had all come in. George Crews had piled up a pretty substantial lead from the rural precincts and Rodgers’ supporters knew that their candidate should win the big Folkston precinct – but by how much? It was going to be a cliff-hanger with the outcome in doubt until the wee hours of the morning.

Rodgers nervously paced the corridor of the courthouse, pulling on a cigarette and with his face getting even longer as the booming voice of John Harris came from the loud speaker “George Crews – George Crews.”

Inside the vote-counting room a prominent Folkston physician and a deputy sheriff reached into the ballot boxes, pulling out the paper ballots and laying them out before Harris.

George Crews was smiling as he heard the votes being called. He was beating Rodgers in his own precinct. Something he wasn’t supposed to do. His supporters were beginning to smell the sweet victory for the highway official.

Rodgers got madder and madder. “I was sold out!” he told a supporter. He listened to the steady drone of the loudspeaker. He continued to pace the hall until just before midnight. By then he had fallen behind in the vote counting by well over a hundred votes. “I’m going home and go to bed,” Rodgers said. “There’s no way I can overcome that lead of George Crews” he muttered. And he walked the several blocks home alone, confident that the two terms he had served in the Georgia House of Representatives had been his last.

But what Rodgers did not know was what was taking place in the smoke-filled vote-counting room. The physician and the deputy sheriff had reached deep into the Folkston ballot box and, unknown to those outside, and inside, stacked all of the votes for George Crews on the top of the pile and buried underneath, the ballots with votes for Rodgers.

The two ballot-straighteners smiled at each other. They alone knew the final outcome of the election long before the ballot counting was over, as they had added up the results including the uncounted votes.

Just after midnight as many of the Rodgers supporters stood in disbelief at what they were hearing from the loudspeakers, something happened – the voice of John Harris boomed out “Rodgers – Rodgers – Rodgers”. But Crews had a big lead. For the next half hour the loudspeakers would blare forth, with nothing but “Rodgers” while the smile on the face of Crews and his supporters wilted. The final tally countywide would give Rodgers a 76 vote win over Crews. 794 to 718. Supporters of Rodgers looked around for him to begin the celebration, but Rodgers was no place to be found. He had gone home to bed hours earlier convinced he was beaten.

A delegation made its way to his home and woke him to tell him the good news. A disheveled, sleepy Ben Rodgers at first refused to believe the outcome but finally the delegation convinced him by telling of the hi-jinks of the two in the vote-counting room. A broad smile spread across his face as the news sank in. He often told of how low he was when he went to bed, and how overjoyed he was when he was awakened.

The two who had “straightened” the ballots had gone the extra mile – they had placed each candidate’s votes into its own pile “to make counting easier” they joked. Their work had aged Rodgers ten years before he had gone home and to bed.

The hi-jinks had been perfectly legal, if somewhat unusual, but election reforms and voting machines will prevent such from happening again, but a colorful chapter in the history of Charlton County politics was written that eventful night, September 10, 1958.

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