Election law has certainly earned its eccentric reputation. From zombie voters to hanging chads, the strange history of modern election law has become ingrained in the public consciousness. But, as odd as the last decade has been, the previous centuries of election law have been even more bizarre. So, in this series of articles, State of Elections will take a closer look at some of the stranger moments in election law.
One such moment happened in California’s Siskiyou County. In 1895, Clarence Smith was elected school superintendent of that county by a single vote. His opponent, George Tebbe, contested the result. When the ballots were recounted, the court found three additional votes for Tebbe, and declared Tebbe the new winner by two votes. However, until the ballots could be counted in open court, they had been stored under the desk in the county clerk’s office. This sounds all well and good, except that Tebbe was deputy clerk at that office, and worked in the same room where the ballots were stored. Imagine Tebbe, sitting just a few short feet from the ballots, the ballots that would decide his political future. Even if there was no actual vote tampering, surely even the appearance of impropriety would warrant a stern rebuke from the court. Of course, no such rebuke was forthcoming. Instead, the court praised the “prudence of the clerk and the fair dealing of all concerned”, and required that Smith prove that ballot tampering took place before taking any action.
Unfortunately, we’ve only scratched the surface of Siskiyou County’s voting irregularities. In 1895, polling locations in Siskiyou County were required to be “open at sunrise, and be kept open until 5 p. m.”. Furthermore, the “ballot-box must not be removed from the polling-place or presence of the bystanders”. Election officers at the Lake precinct, however, managed to violate both these requirements. The polls at Lake precinct did not open until 10:00 A.M., which, although I am unfortunately unfamiliar with California weather, is presumably a considerable amount of time after sunrise. Then, after several hours, the election officers adjourned to eat dinner, leaving the polling place and taking the ballot box with them to the table.
The very same court that turned a blind eye to Tebbe’s possible vote tampering was not willing to stand idly by and allow its election officers to enjoy a pleasant dinner. The court ruled that “although no harm is shown to have resulted from their [the election officer’s] conduct; but, looking to the purity of elections and integrity of the ballot-box, we are constrained to hold that conduct like this amounts in itself to such a failure to observe the substantial requirements of the law as must invalidate the election.” So, because the polls opened a few hours late, and the election officers adjourned to eat a brief dinner, all the votes taken at the Lake precinct were thrown out. Smith had received thirteen votes from that precinct, Tebbe twenty. With those votes invalidated, Smith appears to have won the election by five votes.
The students of Siskiyou appear to be doing just fine, despite their apparent inability to elect a superintendent. SAT scores in the county are somewhat higher than the state average. But, who knows what might have been, if the Lake precinct had opened but a few hours earlier? At the very least, I suppose there is a moral to the story. When serving as an election officer, always pack a bag lunch.
If you know of other bizarre stories like these, please email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anthony Balady is a student at William and Mary Law School, and Editor in Chief of State of Elections