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The Politics of Yesterday

 

Follow enough elections and you tend to forget how much things have changed.

You would think you would have a better perspective precisely on how much things have changed. But I’m here to tell you that after 35-plus years of election nights, absentee voting, early voting, ballot fall-off, drop-outs, write-ins and of course, endorsements – the numbers of votes and numbers of candidates here and now overwhelm the horizon unless you take forceful action to look beyond.

That’s what we did several weeks ago when early voting started. Our story looked at the August election cycle for the years 1992 and 1976 when turnout was the highest it has been in the last 44 years.

The common political personality in those two sets of August elections was Harold Ford Sr., in 1976 seeking his second term and in 1992 seeking his next to last term in Congress.

Ford’s name surfaced recently as well in our recent editorial board interview with Cong. Steve Cohen who described Ford as a “godfather” of local politics with his election to Congress in 1974. But Cohen argues that with many other black elected officials holding office since then there is little need for the godfather position in Memphis politics – at least in the Congressional seat.

(Coming soon: A story that compares the responses we got from Cohen as well as his Democratic primary challenger Tomeka Hart and links to both of the transcripts.)

All these years later, it’s difficult to describe the reach and power of the Ford machine and how exciting it was in those first years. The difficulty is the contrast to today’s methods. And Ford didn’t delegate a whole lot of the essential duties. He was clearly the engine in the Ford machine and there were few details that were too small at that time for him to notice. There were no robocalls, no Facebook groups. There were phone trees but Republicans used them more as part of their organization. The Ford machine drove through neighborhoods with loud speakers on trucks and Ford himself knocked on many a door asking those inside to come with him and vote on election day. No early voting then either, although there was absentee voting.

The election scene 36 years ago had some general similarities to the current political landscape.

There were some concerns about the mechanics of the election.

Election officials were wondering how voters would respond to something new at polling places. Punch card voting machines were being tried at 30 of the county’s 218 precincts. Election officials said they had fielded some calls (non cell phone or iPhone, of course) from voters who said they would be asking for paper ballots instead of using the new devices.

Punch cards didn’t work out and local elections would be conducted on the lever machines for another nine years when the electronic Shouptronic machines would replace them. The punch card issue was also the backdrop for the rise of Democrats as the majority on the election commission. Republicans on the commission favored punch cards. Democrats on the commission had deep reservations about them and some of the Democrats with those reservations weren’t shy about saying they felt vindicated after the punch card issues in Florida in the 2000 Presidential general election.

There are some long memories in politics. It’s either that or some of the players write these things down and keep them in a handy place.

Among the offices on the 1976 ballot were two races for constable – a ceremonial position with no powers that would be eliminated in the next year’s state constitutional convention.

The two constable races combined drew 20 candidates.

The offices were eliminated a year later during the Tennessee Constitutional Convention that was also an entry point of sorts for yet another group of new politicians seeking their way in the world.

 

Dansette

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