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The history we don’t know

By Billy Singleton/ Community Columnist

The 2020 presidential election has been the dominant subject of news broadcasts in recent weeks as claims and counterclaims of fraud, deception and abuse of the electoral process have been endlessly discussed and debated.

Editorials in numerous media outlets have promoted the belief that the 2020 election is unique, unlike any other in the annals of American history. However, as former president Harry S. Truman once wrote, “The only thing new in this world is the history we don’t know.” Claims of election irregularities are as old as the democratic process itself. In fact, voters in Chilton County found themselves embroiled in a similar controversy during the June 1938 Democratic primary.

On June 16, 1938, the headline of the Union-Banner newspaper announced, “Absentee Ballot Box in Democratic Runoff Taken from Courthouse.” The article reporting the theft informed readers, “Tuesday at noon, five prominent Democrats of the county took charge of the absentee box and supplies, handed them out the window, placed them in a waiting automobile and spirited them away to parts unknown.” The theft was attributed to the “culmination of a bitter and lengthy fight over Democratic absentee ballots.”

The theft occurred as election managers completed the poll list and were ready to begin counting the 741 absentee ballots. The Union-Banner article further explained, “The whole affair was conducted in broad open daylight by unmasked men and unarmed as far as witnesses could see.” The article then listed the names of the five prominent members of the community involved in the theft.

Subsequent news coverage suggested that the men who arranged and carried out the theft intended for it to be done as publicly as possible. According to the Union-Banner article, “They must have considered it a matter of public service and public interest as no attempt was made to conceal their actions. After the job was finished, all of the men went about their regular duties, making themselves readily available to anyone who might wish to get in contact with them.”

Because of the intense public emotions created by the theft, Gov. Bibb Graves dispatched four highway patrolmen to Clanton. However, as passions began to abate, the need for additional security soon dissipated.

Charges of fraud and unfairness involving irregularities and buying of absentee votes continued to be circulated throughout the county during the 1938 general election. In a speech to an overflow crowd at the Chilton County Courthouse, Judge J. O. Middleton addressed the issue of illegal absentee ballots proclaiming, “Who sells his vote, sells his country; who buys an office will sell it for one consideration or another.”

According to newspaper reports, no arrests were ever made in the theft of the absentee ballot box and the missing ballots were never officially located. A second Democratic primary runoff election was held on July 24, 1938 to allow voters another opportunity to select candidates for the general election.

Although the 1938 general election was concluded without further controversy, the validity of absentee ballots in Chilton County would again become an issue in 1942 as 999 absentee ballots were submitted, approximately 16 times the number cast by voters in Jefferson County during the same election.

The history that we do not know may well be the only thing new in this world. Perhaps a more relevant lesson these recurring events provide was suggested by English philosopher Aldous Huxley who wrote , “That people do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”