1985: Late Precincts and Worst Election Karma

April 7, 2012 at 4:55 pm Leave a comment

(As a reporter, editor, candidate, party hack, election judge or volunteer, I’ve been involved in more than 40 elections. The one in 1985 was one of my favorites. That’s why I call it the Worst Election Ever. Originally posted elsewhere in June 2010.)

The worst election I ever dealt with was probably the one where everybody got sick. Or maybe it was the one where Sid thought he’d won. There are so many different layers and types of worst that it’s hard to cut it fine enough. And there are too many ways to define awful.

But here’s one way. Stuff kept being stolen from my apartment in Petersburg. I hadn’t known my girlfriend that long and was starting to wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have given her a key. But it turned out that someone had a key to the vacant apartment next door, and was climbing into that attic and through the connecting space. I finally found out what was happening after I nailed the windows shut. The thief couldn’t get out the windows, so he had to scramble back out of the tiny attic opening in the bathroom. He turned over a set of shelves on the way out, and left footprints on the wall, evidence he’d never left before when he was dropping in and walking out onto the top of a connecting porch.

He still would have gotten away with it if I hadn’t spotted the camera weeks later in the window of a pawn shop across the parking lot from the newspaper. The cops got it back and looked at the pawn ticket and arrested somebody. That’s what it was like living downtown. The catch was when I told Rex about the subpoena.

“Awll be gawdamm,” said Rex, the managing editor, grabbing his phone and asking me for the phone number of Sid, the Commonwealth’s Attorney. I knew it off the top of my head because I’d had an exchange with him before in that political season. I’d reported that his assistant, Hume, whose first name I can’t recall, had been mentioned as a candidate for his job. Sid wanted to know if I stood by that statement in the story. “I’m not asking who’s doing the mentioning,” he said, a line I adapted years later when a reporter told me that Fred said Ron was being mentioned for higher office. “Fred should know,” I said. “He’s doing the mentioning.”

But Sid didn’t want to know who was doing the mentioning, just if it was true, and I said it was and Sid fired his assistant. Now Rex was on the phone with his rich LA drawl (that’s Lower Alabama, by the way). “Sid, do you really have one of my reporters in court on Election Day?” (Dew yew ree-a-ly have wuna mah repoh-a-ters…) “You know this paper’s gonna be doin’ local endorsements, don’t you?”

And so an assistant called me later, one Sid hadn’t fired, and told me I didn’t have to be in court that day in November of 1985 when the Democrats had nominated African-Americans for sheriff and commonwealth’s attorney, and the white imcumbents had filed as independents, and we knew it was going to be close. People generally re-elect incumbent constitutional officers in Virginia, but Petersburg was trending black, and twenty years after Harry Byrd was buried, it was time.

And Sid would probably carry the precinct where everybody attended the Episcopal Church that Robert E. Lee had visited for his son’s wedding after the war. And his assistant, Hume, would carry the precinct where Peabody Junior High School was. Peabody was down on Halifax Street, the Avenue, the center of what had been one of the most vibrant black communities in the South since before that same war.

And it would be close. It came down to the last precinct and it was too close to call. We had about fifteen precincts in the city, some called in by precinct number and some by the name of the school where people had voted. When the last precinct came in, I did the math in my head on the race everybody was waiting for. And Sid had won in a squeaker. All the reporters in town were there, mostly, I thought, because of the huge blackboard where I was writing the numbers as they came in. it was an important election but there were few visuals, and I was the only thing moving, so my mom got to see me on television that night. We had someone from the AP, and stringers and reporters from the TV stations, and Randy Sisisky, the Congressman’s son, who we heard saying over the phone in another election, “That’s 534 for Smith, 678 for Daniels, and 972 for Daddy.”

And those numbers are just for the purposes of story, and some of these names might not be right because it was a long time ago. But there were fifteen precincts, and Peabody was one of them, and Hume and Sid and Rex are right. But I was wrong.

Because as I was writing the numbers on the board, they started to look familiar. And I knew what had happened before I had quite sorted it out and I had sense enough to tell the broadcast reporters to stop calling. And they did, and we figured it out, and we didn’t know that WTVR had already got through. But one of the other editors taking down numbers over the phone had taken a call from a precinct identified by name. And another had taken down one identified by number, and written it down in the wrong place. And it took maybe a minute for me to realize we had the same precinct twice. And there was one still outstanding.

“Which one?” the city editor wanted to know. I went through my list, eyes darting back and forth between the paper in my hand and the precincts on the board, wondering what kind of fools had invented elections to begin with and what idiot has screwed this one up. The answers, in order, were the Greeks, and me.

“Peabody,” I said, and the city editor knew before I told her. “Hume’s going to win.”

So we told all the reporters and we waited for the last precinct to come in. We knew who was going to win because Peabody will vote for a white independent over a black Democrat the day Bergton votes to re-elect Barack Obama. But we couldn’t say it until the numbers came in. And they hadn’t. I just thought they had.

We all watched something happen while we waited for that last precinct to call in. We watched a mountain that had been the white control of a black city, and we watched the men running for sheriff and prosecutor push a rock up that mountain. And we waited while it teetered on the summit, waiting for a breeze or a stray sound to push it over one side or the other. And the sound was the phone ringing with a call from Peabody, and it was over and Doug Wilder was lieutenant governor of Virginia and four years later he’d make more history. The James River would crest later that week in Richmond, burying a utility plant and a train station, while the floods in Rockingham County sent a Democrat to the General Assembly for two years. But I wouldn’t know that until five years later, because that night I was watching a different kind of crest.

Later I told Rex what had happened, and he stared at me for a few seconds from beneath drooping eyelids that could have been oatmeal-colored valances. “They had the same numbers you did,” he finally said. So I was off the hook for the screw-up. But because I had stood by idly while Rex abused the power of the press to get me out of an Election Day subpoena, I still had to pay. There was one piece of karma I still had to deal with. Justice had to be served.

When Sid called, they handed me the phone. “Peabody’s still out,” I told him. “Hume’s going to win.”

“But Channel Six is saying I won,” he insisted, and I had to tell him again he was going to lose. And he called again after Peabody came in, and I had to tell him again. And he called one last time before I locked up the newsroom and turned out the lights at 2 or 3 in the morning, and I had to tell him he’d lost, again. “Channel Six is saying I won,” he repeated, with a hint of desperation in his voice.

And I could have blamed it on Channel Six, or I could have blamed it on the precinct that called in twice, or on the editor that wrote it on the wrong line. But I was in charge of the numbers, and it was mine. The gods or karma agreed it was my responsibility, and that’s why they made me tell Sid he’d lost and he was 60 years old and he was out of a job.

Three times.

You make the error, and you pay the price, and you accept the karma. And you don’t make the same mistake again. I never made the mistake of miscounting precincts again. Not in a couple of dozen general and primary elections as a journalist, not in fifteen or so elections as a candidate and election judge. But there are always new mistakes. Last November, I let one of the other officials close the electronic pollbooks, laptops that are complex in software so they can be simple in operation. And there was an error. On all of them. And when someone called later that week from the Electoral Board to tell me about the error and about a lost key in my precinct, I accepted responsibility. From the way it was explained, tech person to Electoral Board member to me, it was obvious the folks downtown knew what the error was, and how to not make the same mistake again, so who made it didn’t matter.

(I was wrong again on the names. It was Terry Sisisky, and sad to say he died a few years ago. Here’s a story.)

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Entry filed under: Commentary, Elections, Memoir, Newspapers.

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