A local history of tumult and change at the polls

By , Daily Memphian Updated: October 26, 2020 6:13 AM CT | Published: October 26, 2020 4:00 AM CT

While early voting has occupied much of the attention in the current election cycle, elected leaders and law enforcement officials have been working with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency on how to handle any problems that might arise at the polls or around the results on the Nov. 3 election day.

The tabletop exercises are in preparation for what could be an unusual election night in a city where the political culture takes in a lot of milestones.

The Memphis 200

Here are a few to consider:

 Poll tax and Crump

At one point, poll taxes were required for every election. The state poll tax law was passed in 1870 and endured for almost a century in one form or another.

The Memphis 200: Part 2

One of the basic mechanisms of the E.H. Crump machine’s control of the vote locally, which included allowing Black Memphians to vote for the machine candidates, was that those running the voting operation kept bundles of poll tax receipts on them to dispense to voters they were satisfied would vote the right way.

One of the closest political allies of political boss E.H. Crump answered questions about rigged elections in the writing of William Miller’s definitive Crump biography, “Mr. Crump of Memphis.”

A footnote in the 1964 biography says that in a 1957 interview, Judge Lois Bejach claimed the only “stolen” election he knew of during his time in Memphis politics was the 1923 race for mayor. The ballot featured a slate of Ku Klux Klan candidates challenging city officials including incumbent Mayor Rowlett Paine.

Crump’s organization, which wasn’t previously allied with Paine, only showed up to work on his behalf and against the Klan slate the day before the election.

Bejach, according to the footnote, was present on election night as votes were hand-counted.

“He says that as names were called off the ballots for the tally keepers to record, a name different from the one on the ballot would be called,” the footnote reads. “Had it been strictly an honest election, the Klan candidates would have won.”

Paine won by fewer than 5,000 votes, only to lose his re-election bid four years later to Watkins Overton, who had the backing of Crump.

The Memphis 200 Chapter 3: Alice Mitchell, Overton Square, Piomingo and the Memphis Chicks

In the 1880s, the state had the first laws that standardized some election practices in some counties with those measures tied to the state’s move away from Reconstruction reforms enacted following the Memphis Massacre of 1866.

The Dortch Law required that voters in high-population counties had to be allowed some measure of privacy to mark their ballots.

All Tennessee communities with more than five hundred people were required by the Meyer Registration Law to register voters.

Separate ballot boxes for state and federal elections on the same date were called for in the Lea Election Law.

Memphis 200 Part 4: People, institutions, events shaped city

Tennessee has no law that mandates an automatic recount if the margin of victory in certified results is close. It is up to a losing candidate to prove there are not only some votes in dispute but to prove there are enough questionable votes to change the outcome of the race.

‘Magnificent’ Larry Finch plaza will be located at entrance to South Campus

Well-known names and controversial results

It’s difficult to imagine the city’s basketball legacy and place in all things Memphis without Larry Finch. But Finch was also a candidate for elected office once in a matchup that has all the makings of a political legend.

Finch ran for County Register in 1998 as a first-time candidate challenging incumbent Guy Bates, who at the time was the county’s longest-serving incumbent. Finch was talked into the political quest and in the critical home stretch of the campaign stopped actively campaigning to care for an ill family member. Finch lost by a 127 votes in the countywide contest and never ran again.

The Memphis 200: The final 20 entries

One of the longest-running quests in local politics was Joe Cooper’s bid to return to elected office after he was convicted on federal loan fraud charges in the 1970s during his tenure on the Shelby County Commission.

The closest he ever came was when he won the Democratic primary for the commission’s District 5 seat in the May 2002 county primaries by a single vote over Guthrie Castle. Castle did not contest the results. Democratic politicos nicknamed Cooper ‘Landslide’ for the duration of the political season until Cooper lost to the Republican nominee in the August county general elections.

The time Michael Jordan made a bet with the mayor of Memphis

On the other hand, John Willingham lost to incumbent Willie Herenton in the 2003 Memphis mayor’s race by 46,387 votes and filed suit in Chancery Court to contest the results. Willingham said he doubted the results based, in part, on how many people had told him before and after the election that they had voted for him over Herenton. The case was dismissed.

Willingham’s reasoning was not the last instance of a candidate claiming too many voters had told him they supported him to accept an electoral loss.

MLGW-TVA: Crump’s political power brought electrical power to Memphis

Former Mayor J.J. Williams lost to City Commissioner E.H. Crump in the 1909 city mayor’s race by 79 votes in the race that put Crump’s political machine on the map.

Williams’ lawsuit was one of 11 filed to contest the results. None stopped Crump from taking the oath of office and becoming mayor on New Year’s Day 1910. Williams pursued his claim for 11 more months before dropping the claim.

“During my investigation, I was honestly led to believe by many and urgent friends, who, I am now satisfied, were misled by statement made to them about irregularities,” he wrote in a letter to Crump.

Crump would be ousted from office in 1915 for his public refusal to enforce the state prohibition law but remain the city’s powerful political figure in or out of elected office until his death in 1954.

Harold Ford Sr. upset incumbent U.S. Rep. Dan Kuykendall in the 1974 midterm general elections by 744 votes to become the city’s Congressman. The vote count was a long one that has had a much longer life in the city’s political lore. Kuykendall was on television declaring victory as six missing sets of tally sheets used to double check vote totals in precincts were found in metal boxes in a county government parking garage.

The found results added to a landmark night for what became the city’s most famous political family. Not only was Harold Ford Sr. elected to Congress for what would be a 22-year tenure, his brother John Ford, who was already on the Memphis City Council, was elected to the state Senate and his brother Emmitt Ford was elected to the State House seat Harold Ford Sr. gave up to run for Congress.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our election coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do

Sources include: “Mr. Crump of Memphis,” by William D. Miller and “Tennessee: A Political History,” by Dr. Phillip Langsdon

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political history close elections disputed vote counts

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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