Back in those turbulent days of the 1960s and ’70s when Blacks struggled to gain their constitutional voting rights, two words sent anger through white-controlled precincts in Mississippi: poll watchers.
Hundreds of federal election examiners and volunteers from the civil rights movement swooped down on voting sites across Mississippi in an effort to ensure fair elections.
Now, President Trump has sent word to Republican election officials that he wants poll watchers at voting precincts throughout America on Election Day, 2020. He says he wants to make sure Democrats don’t steal the election.
The worm has obviously turned. There was all manner of howling from whites in the 1960s over the presence of poll watchers. Not as much as a screech is being heard now at Republicans’ plans to watch over the polls in the forthcoming election.
Four years ago, an article in the Hattiesburg American quoted then-Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann as saying that “under Mississippi law, you’re not allowed to be at the polls unless you’re casting a ballot or you are a poll worker. Each political party gets two observers. Upon casting your ballot, you are to leave the poll.”
Hosemann, who is now lieutenant governor, said poll managers would regulate the observers and could remove them for unlawful activity. There’s also a fine up to $1,000 and a one-year prison sentence for persons convicted of disturbing an election.
Observers may not talk to voters or physically handle any type of ballot. They cannot view or photograph poll books while at the precinct. They may not greet or speak to voters. They cannot influence or harass a voter. They may not campaign inside the polling place or anywhere within 150 feet of an entrance to a voting site.
The gubernatorial election of 1971 represents the quintessential case study of the poll watching business in Mississippi. That year brought multitudes of voting examiners to the state — and a rash of violence against them by whites enraged at their presence. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 had paved the way for the appointment of the federal poll watchers. Hundreds of volunteer observers from afar also worked the polls.
Charles Evers, running as an independent and two years into his first term as mayor of Fayette, was seeking to become the first Black elected the state’s governor. Bill Waller Sr. won the election with 77 percent of the vote. Evers was second with 22 percent.
Waller turned out to be a moderate governor for Mississippi, appointing several Blacks to important positions and commissions. Black candidates made big gains, winning numerous county posts.
Poll watchers from both the federal and volunteer ranks were victims of violence on voting day perpetrated by white supremacists and terrorists. But Attorney General Bill Allain denied there had been any harassment of poll watchers.
“We know only what we (read) in the newspapers,” he told The New York Times.
“Amazing Grace,” a book by New Orleans author Jason Berry detailing Evers’ run for the state’s top office, is replete with stories of abuse suffered by poll watchers and of Black voters being given sample ballots to follow with checks by white-only candidates’ names.
Berry recited instances of violence against voters and watchers statewide. At Fayette, federal observers caught poll workers in all sorts of mischief, allowing some whites to vote twice, the second time as Black voters, denying them a chance to vote. Waller blamed any trouble at the polls on outsiders.
In those late ’60s and early ’70s elections, poll watchers were considered anathema to the white voting public in Mississippi. The times, they have a-changed.
Mac Gordon is a part-time resident of McComb. He is a retired reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com.