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How votes were counted in the old days

By David Wildstein, February 04 2020 12:01 pm

For those who are relatively new to New Jersey politics, here’s how we got election results in the old days – at least in Essex County where I witnessed the counting process for the first time in 1974.

When the polls closed at 8 PM, challengers from each party would remain at the polling location.  The election board workers would use a key to unlock the machines and then use a tool to crank the machines open.

As the octogenarian board worker turned the crank, a set of carbonless paper – it could have been about four-feet wide, but I was a pre-teen and things always looked bigger than they really were – was removed from the machine.  The ink was purple.

The paper was laid down on school cafeteria table used by election officials, and one of the board workers would begin reading the results for the single voting machine.

The results would be called out starting with the candidate with the A-1 ballot position.  The partisan people in the room would write the results down – mostly using the back of the challenger credential certificates.

My job in 1974 was to get Livingston’s 7th district numbers at Mount Pleasant Elementary School.  I wrote them down carefully and handed them to a man named Vernon Wisdom, the municipal chairman who had been mayor in the 1950s.  He was watching district 21.

That was the night I learned how to read election results.

Millicent Fenwick, running for her first term in Congress, lost the 7th by 141 votes – a margin of more than 2-1.  I was certain Fred Bohen, a former White House aide who worked for Lyndon Johnson, had won.

But Wisdom explained to me that the 7th was the most Democratic district in town.  He told me to watch for the 11th and 22nd when I got to the headquarters.  Bohen won Livingston, but only with 52% of the vote.

The next part goes without saying: there were no cell phones or text messages in 1974.

Wisdom didn’t bother going to the school’s single pay phone.  In the days before call waiting, he said it would be faster to just get in the car and drive four minutes to the campaign headquarters.  He also saved a dime on the call – not an unimportant part of his thought process.

When we arrived at the headquarters, Wisdom yelled out, “I’ve got results.”

He walked to a desk with a pre-Excel era, partially-filled-in tally sheet and gave the results for the three districts he had – 7, 20 and 21.  There was a man with an adding machine keeping a tally, and another man who kept ripping off the adding machine paper and comparing it to the handwritten tally sheet.  Peter Cooper, a councilman who lost his seat that night, was standing over him and keeping his own tally.

By around 8:45 PM, Livingston results were complete.

Wisdom picked up one of the phones and called the county headquarters and announced, “I’ve got Livingston.

He read off the totals for Congress, County Register, and Freeholder.  He told them what happened in the council race, but didn’t read the numbers.

After the county chairman, Frederic Remington, had all the Essex numbers, he called them in to the state party headquarters.  The state party chairman, Webster Todd, the father of future Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, was waiting for them there.

That kept political parties way ahead of the county clerks, who awaited calls from municipal clerks after the board workers brought the individual carbonless tally sheets to township hall.

It was a simple process and it worked – sometimes, but not always.

There were frequent human errors as the octogenarians, at work since 6:30 AM – the polls opened at 7 AM until 2001 – sometimes struggled to read the small, purple print on the tally sheets.

Occasionally, the election worker would misread the numbers.  It was easy to do.  The numbers were small, sometimes blurry – and purple.

My own private Iowa

That happened to me ten years later when I ran for the township council.

I waited at Eppes-Essen, our election night headquarters, for the results to come in.  Nobody was letting me anywhere near the polling places for the count.

When the results came in, I had lost by a small margin.

But the numbers didn’t look right.  There were three outlier districts where my totals should have been better, based on performance in similar districts – both that night and historically.

I sent two people to township hall with instructions to not leave until the municipal clerk pulled the purple tally sheet for the district in question and give them the numbers.

The two sent there were Ken Welch, the municipal chairman and a former mayor who had a relationship with the clerk, and my father, who could tally all 21 districts in his head if he had to.  Neither was going to leave until they had a confirmation of the numbers.

It turned out that the results had been transposed in three districts by board workers reading the results from the tally sheets.

Those districts changed the outcome of the race.  I had now won by 310 votes in an election where 14,386 voters turned out – 80% of the total registered.

The Star-Ledger went with the early count and reported my defeat in the Wednesday edition of the newspaper.

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