This week, the Times is pleased to run an excerpt from retired Supreme Court Justice Tom Glaze’s new book from the University of Arkansas Press, “Waiting for the Cemetery Vote.” Read more about the book here.
A few weeks after the 1976 Democratic runoff in Conway County, I received a call from Rex Elliott of Marshall, who said he was active on the Searcy County Republican Committee. He had followed the Conway County battles in the newspapers and he thought election conduct in his county merited as much attention as Conway County’s. He wondered if The Election Law Institute could undertake the same legal action at Marshall that produced stunning results in Morrilton. He described the vote-buying system and admitted that he and the Republican leadership as well as Democrats had bribed voters for years. They were tired of it and Rex thought most people wanted to have honest elections as long as everyone else was made to live by the rules, too. He gave me the names of a number of people who would tell about the vote buying and participate in a lawsuit if I would bring one like the Conway County suit. I drove up to Marshall to meet him and his wife, Fern, and the people who were ready to blow the lid off the vote-buying scheme.
Rex was an unlikely maverick. He was a friendly, easy-going bear of a man, six-foot-four and 275 pounds, who was developing an ample belly after giving up his twenty-five-year career as a long-haul truck driver and taking up the sedentary life of radio. He and Fern had a band in the ’50s that performed country and western and gospel music around the country. Rex played guitar and bass and sang. Sometimes he played with Wayne Raney, the harmonica legend from Wolf Bayou north of Heber Springs. Raney performed on XERF, the big Clear Channel station at Del Rio, Texas, as Wayne Raney and the Delmore Brothers and popularized “A Fast Train Through Arkansas” and “The Del Rio Boogie.” Raney was impressed with Elliott’s rich-timbred voice and gift for easy gab and kept telling him to get into radio because he had known far less talented men who made it big. Elliott took his advice. He converted the garage that housed his trucks into a radio station, of which he was the owner, manager and chief on-air voice. He also got into politics, although without much personal success. He lost two races for sheriff.
Rex’s friends did not seem as disquieted by the fraud as he was, or else they were distrustful of a young Little Rock lawyer who wanted them to put down on paper how they had for years violated the law. None of them would own up to ever paying for a vote or taking money or whiskey for their votes or knowing anyone who did. I told Rex that it was pointless to file a voting-fraud suit if no one was willing to testify that they had brokered votes because I was quite sure that no one on the other side, whom we would name in the suit, would admit it. Without a proffer of proof, no judge was going to entertain the complaint or our petition for a restraining order. A few days later, Rex showed up at my office in Little Rock with two longtime Republican election workers, John Eaton and Olas Taylor, who were willing to tell their stories for the record. I got a court reporter and we recorded the depositions of all three men. Rex supplied a list of dozens of people whom he personally had paid for their votes during the years he was running for sheriff, or running the vote-buying operation for the Republicans: people who distributed cash to voters for him, election judges and clerks who had voted people inside the polling place, or observed the voting and distributed the tokens. He identified Republican candidates and workers and their Democratic counterparts who pooled money for the bribes and distributed the payoffs to voters.
Taylor, who had served a couple of terms as the county treasurer in the late 1950s, and Eaton gave similar accounts. They told not only about vote buying but all sorts of illegal acts. Although the voting age was then 21, Eaton said he started voting when he was 16 and that later, when he became an election judge, he and the other officials allowed anyone who showed up to vote whether they were of age, had a poll tax or, later, had even registered to vote. All the ballots were tossed into the ballot box and counted. It didn’t matter. No one ever double-checked the registration affidavits to see if the people who signed at the polls matched the number of votes cast. No one, Democrat or Republican, ever blew the whistle on the other side.
Rex said that the Republican candidates typically would raise $20,000 to $30,000 among them to pay voters and the Democrats usually raised about the same amount. The candidates of a party would get together before the election and pool their money, usually $5,000 from the candidates for sheriff and county judge and smaller amounts for other offices. Someone would handle the cash and be responsible for the distribution to voters on election day or the day before. The evening before the election they would make the rounds of homes of people who regularly sold their votes to close the deal, although much of the bargaining took place on election day. In party primaries and in school elections, there were different methods but the bartering took place in nearly all elections. Rex estimated that a third of the votes in a typical general election were bought.
Rex described how it went.
Q: How do you make sure that that person votes your list?
A: We’ve got a man on the inside. We have to have a judge inside. Of course, the judges are usually about the same ones, just like the same guys that handle the money [and] the same people sell out year to year. The man inside will have different codes. One time it might be a grain of corn that he gives the man, and when he brings back this yellow grain of corn, for instance, we know the man voted right because our judge probably got to mark his ballot or he stood and looked over his shoulder. That way we sure didn’t want to spend money for a vote we didn’t get. Sometimes if the other side gets wise to this and they go to giving out grains of corn we will change and give out maybe a penny, a new penny, or just different codes that we used to know that the man voted right. Some cases, when you take them to the door, you walk close enough that you can see inside the polling place and see how they vote, to see if the judges are getting to mark their ballot or looking over their shoulder. Sometimes, the [election] judge will nod his head back at you that they voted right.
Q: Who designates the judge inside the polling place?
A: Most usually the candidates and the chairman of the party. They get together and try to decide who is the best for all concerned because sometimes you get a judge that may not be for one on that ticket. You’ve got to be careful when you are buying votes. You want to let every man’s money get what he pays for.
Eaton described the haggling with voters over the price for voting for the Republican candidates. The price tended to go up during the day of the election.
They will come to you or they will say, “How much you’uns paying? You tell them and they will say, ‘Well, the other side is paying more.’ Or they will say, ‘That’s not enough, I’ll wait until it gets higher.’ You are standing out there bidding them off all day like you are buying cattle.
The most he ever paid for a vote, Eaton said, was $75, although it was typical for a person to demand $100 for his and his wife’s votes. Eaton served as an election judge several times and usually marked the ballots for people who had sold their votes, although a few people insisted on marking their own ballots because they did not want others to know that they had sold their vote.
He named his own sister Geneva, who had married a Republican politician, a former sheriff, as one of the craftiest vote manipulators in the county. She was a judge for every election in the box at Bear Creek, about a dozen miles southwest of Marshall on State Route 27. Bear Creek was the biggest box in the county.
You can’t … I don’t care who or where, you can put her right in the election down here in Little Rock if you are voting ballots, and I’ll guarantee you she can mark more ballots and pull more crooked stuff than anybody you’ve got down here.
One old-timer thought the vote buying got started in the Depression because people needed a few dollars to buy shoes for their kids. A man always had a need for a few easy dollars. Elmer Gregory, who lived on a rural route near St. Joe, said he and a hunting buddy noticed a walkie-talkie set on sale for $39.95 at a store in Marshall, and they figured it would come in handy in the deer woods. They had no particular interest in the election but they went to the St. Joe box on election day and haggled with the vote buyers until the price got to $40. They took the $40, voted Republican, and bought the walkie-talkie set.
Whether you were a Democrat or a Republican, the key to the system was a clutch of judges and clerks in every precinct who were dependable and resourceful. When a candidate put his money into the pool to buy votes, he deserved the assurance that people whose votes he had bought actually voted for him. Thus if a man came in to vote for the Republican slate but identified one of the candidates as someone he disliked and didn’t want to vote for, the judge marking the ballot for him would mark all the races except that one and then distract the man in conversation, mark it for the candidate who had paid, rip off the stub, and deposit the ballot and stub while the voter wasn’t watching. So it was important, Eaton said, to have the right judges and clerks for your side in each box so that you got all the votes for your side, legal or illegal, that were possible or at least that you had paid for. He said you had to be ready to beat down the other side, sometimes literally, if there were protests:
Well, if you get a precinct set up just right you pretty well run it. The other candidates can sit there and object but still that don’t do them no good. I know I went down to Leslie one night to watch the vote count down there. Well, they was pulling some stuff off down there and I had a pistol on me and I just pulled it out and I backed them all up against the wall until help got down there to help me with it. If you’ve got the right people in there they will try, the other side, but if they don’t have enough strength they will try to argue against it but it don’t make any difference, you go ahead and run it the way you want to. If you are not hooked up that way, you do the best you can do.
Rex brought along a petition signed by fifty “voters and businessmen of Searcy County” saying they were dissatisfied with illegal-voting practices in the county and wanted them stopped. “These voting practices include the buying and selling of votes, the gathering of candidates around polling places, and the casting of ballots other than one’s own,” it said. “We feel the time has come to end this type of activity and return to the lawful casting of votes and set the local political scene back upon the right path.” A few days later, he brought affidavits from several people recounting efforts to buy their votes or observing payments to voters.
Armed with all that evidence, I announced at a press conference in Little Rock that I would file a federal lawsuit to stop the vote buying and other illegal practices, and direct poll watchers to monitor the general election inside every precinct in the county. I filed the suit in mid-September, six weeks before the election, and the case was assigned to Judge Terry Shell, who had issued the decree in the Conway County election suit in the spring. The plaintiffs were 88 residents of Searcy County and six TEL Institute supporters from around the state, including the redoubtable Blytheville newspaperman Hank Haines. The suit listed a number of illegal election practices, including the sale of votes for cash and whiskey, and contended that they violated the equal-protection rights of all voters in Searcy County and the rest of Arkansas because people were entitled to have their own votes counted and not diluted by fraudulent ballots. I asked for a speedy hearing, an order forbidding the practices in the general election, and the assignment of poll watchers inside every box in the county. The suit named the three county election commissioners—Will Goggin, another Democrat, and the Republican commissioner—and the county clerk, who was the voter registrar and supervisor and custodian of absentee votes.
Judge Shell scheduled a hearing for Sept. 28, and I had subpoenas issued for the four defendants and a number of others who we believed were involved in the vote buying for both parties. They all showed up, sullen and nervous, at the United States Courthouse at Little Rock that morning with their attorneys, Gail O. Matthews and J. D. Patterson of Little Rock. Gail called to me in the hallway outside the courtroom. He said we needed to get some things worked out. It’s a little late, I said, because we’re going to trial in a few minutes.
“There’s not going to be a trial,” Matthews said.
Everyone in Searcy County, he said, knew that the vote buying and the other practices were normal occurrences and had been going on, as far as anyone knew, since before any of them were born. But they were not going to get on the stand and admit they had committed felonies or lie about it. So he had advised all of them to take the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination. Everyone, he said, was amenable to just stopping the whole mess. I notified Judge Shell that we had compromised the case, and we drafted a consent decree, which the judge signed that afternoon. They would admit the corruption but they wanted the order to say that while they knew about them, they did not personally participate in any of the illegal acts. The decree ordered an end to all the illegalities, directed the county to require all the judges and clerks for the November election to attend a seminar that I would conduct on how to administer an election and to properly count and record votes, and ordered county officials to allow poll watchers from outside the county to observe the election from inside every polling place. Copies of the order were to be given to every candidate for office and every election official in the county.
Although I was apprehensive, the seminar for judges and clerks and other election officials in a courtroom at Marshall actually went well. I thought many seemed resentful but a number of the officials asked good questions. I explained exactly what the law required them to do in each polling place and in the clerk’s office, and I emphasized the penalties for violating the law, especially any effort to influence a person’s vote with cash, intoxicating spirits or other favors or participating in any way in such a scheme. Forty poll watchers, mostly students at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Law, watched the voting and counting that day. I had gotten myself into a situation that might be perceived as a conflict of interest, so I excused myself as the attorney in the lawsuit the week before the election and Jack Lavey, a Little Rock labor and employment lawyer, supervised the poll-watching operation. He and Walter Davidson, another Little Rock lawyer who was president of Common Cause, would handle the suit for the next two years.
Republicans had swept the Democrats from power in the 1974 election and they won this one by big margins. They obviously realized that they enjoyed a natural advantage even without the dissemination of cash and whiskey, which accounted for the sudden interest of so many of them in clean elections. TEL Institute petitioned Judge Shell in 1977 and 1978 to order poll watchers for school elections, primaries, and the general election, and he did. A final consent decree in 1979 directed the county to keep elections free of taint in the future. Rex Elliott continued his campaign to clean up the elections. He heard about a county that had bought new voting machines and was casting off its old ones. Rex and a friend pooled their money and bought a half-dozen used machines, and brought them back to Marshall. Parts of the county cast their ballots on voting machines for the first time in 1978.
I was never so naïve as to believe that they were always or ever simon-pure or that the sheer physical danger of electioneering ever subsided. In a school election in September 1976 watched over by our poll watchers, an election judge parked outside the school at St. Joe where the election was held. Robert Dittrich, a law student at Little Rock who would later become prosecuting attorney for life in southeast Arkansas, asked why the school was closed for the day. It was closed, the election judge told him, so that in the event of gunplay no children would get in the way. When the election official returned to her car alongside Dittrich after the vote counting, two of her tires had been slashed. When she pulled a pistol from her glove compartment and marched across the school lot and back into the school, Dittrich figured that his work was done and headed down US Highway 65 for home.
• • •
Judge Shell’s decree and the ’76 election regrettably did not foreclose my further education on the Byzantine politics and electioneering in those hills.
In the late evening of Feb. 9, nearly nine months before the election, Billy Joe Holder, a six-term Democratic sheriff who had lost to the Republican Loren Reeves in 1974, was watching television while his wife, June, sat across the living room crocheting. Someone put a shotgun barrel against the window screen, aimed between the potted plants on the windowsill, and shot Holder in the head. The big redhead, who had been the nation’s youngest sheriff when he was first elected in 1950, died en route to the hospital. Someone had cut the telephone wire to the Holder house, and to call the state police his wife had to use a police radio in Holder’s car. He had gotten a job as an agent of the Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Board after his defeat. June wouldn’t let Sheriff Reeves in the house when he came the next day.
Nearly five months later, the police arrested Robert A. Baysinger, a local bootlegger, his wife, Nina, and two other men, Charles Dye and Norman Keith Sutterfield, and charged them with involvement in Holder’s murder. Baysinger supposedly hired Sutterfield to kill Holder because Holder had arrested his wife for bootlegging and the others were accomplices to the murder. Baysinger would be tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison without parole, but the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed his conviction because of the misuse of a recorded admission of his involvement. He was tried again and acquitted. Charges against the alleged triggerman, Sutterfield, were dropped because he produced witnesses who said they drank beer with him in Missouri the evening of the shooting, and charges were dropped against the other two as well. Except for Baysinger’s short time in prison after his original conviction, no one was ever punished for Holder’s murder.
Sheriff Reeves was an instant suspect after the murder and spent the summer and fall loudly protesting the whisper campaign against him by the Democrats, especially my old friend and law school classmate Kenneth R. Smith, who had been the prosecuting attorney for the Fourteenth Circuit since 1973. My first venture into election sleuthing had been in the summer of 1964, when I went to Yellville to investigate a whiskey-for-votes scam in Smith’s race for state representative.
Two weeks before the ’76 election, in which Reeves was running for re-election, the prosecutor charged Reeves with being an accessory to the murder of his political enemy and hindering the prosecution of the murderers. Reeves said it was all politics aimed at defeating him in the election. Voters must have believed him because they re-elected him 2,263 to 1,392, a much bigger margin than his victory over Holder two years earlier. Holder’s embittered wife ran against the Republican county clerk and she, too, was beaten badly. There was no sympathy for a widow in that county, and there had been rumors, encouraged by Sheriff Reeves, that she was the real culprit in her husband’s death.
Reeves asked me to defend him, and although I had little real experience as a criminal lawyer, I agreed. I figured that I would need help and associated Richard Mays, who had little more experience than I had, as co-counsel. It was a good thing. When I collapsed during the trial, from the heat, tension, exhaustion or something, Richard was able to take over for a day. I made it back for the closing arguments.
Sheriff Reeves, as I would discover, did not have the most endearing alibis, but the state did not have any direct evidence linking him with his political enemy’s murder. The previous fall, Baysinger had told Reeves that he wanted to kill Holder for arresting his wife and he wondered if Reeves would like to invest in putting his old political foe out of his way for good. Weeks before Holder’s murder, Baysinger met Sheriff Reeves on the bank of the Buffalo River at the US Highway 65 bridge north of Marshall and asked if he had thought any more about their earlier conversation. Reeves would later tell the FBI and juries at two trials that Baysinger had asked him that day for $2,000 to “take care of it” but that he had refused and told Baysinger that he shouldn’t kill Holder. For four and a half months after Holder’s murder, the sheriff told no one about the conversations although the state police and FBI questioned him extensively. He told the investigators that Baysinger was a hunting buddy and wouldn’t kill anybody. Reeves finally told them about the conversations and agreed to collaborate in taping a conversation with Baysinger in the parking lot of the Sunset Cafe at US Highway 65 and State Route 27 at Marshall, in which Baysinger told the sheriff that he had hired a Conway man, Sutterfield, to kill Holder. On the stand, Reeves said he had kept silent because Baysinger had told him the day after the murder that he had “damned sure better keep my mouth shut” or the bootlegger would sell his pickup truck to get enough money to hire someone to kill him, too.
“I said I wouldn’t say nothing,” the sheriff testified. We told the jury in our closing argument that he had good reason to be terrified because while the six-foot-four sheriff was a big and powerful man, he was no match for an assassin’s rifle.
Throughout all the trials, politics and electioneering and whiskey were unifying threads. The prosecution insinuated that despite his victory, Reeves was so embittered by the 1974 election that he tried to block Holder’s hiring as an Alcoholic Beverage Control agent. They tried to prove that Reeves had set up a phony raid on Baysinger’s still to stymie Holder and that Sheriff Reeves had agreed to let the moonshiners operate undisturbed in exchange for their support against Holder. The sheriff denied it all. He did admit that he had bought three gallons of moonshine in 1974 to bribe people to vote for him rather than Holder but insisted that he had made no promise not to arrest them after he got elected.
Aside from the circumstantial evidence of Reeves’s enmity for Holder and his association with Baysinger, the state’s case was weak. I had a vague feeling starting from the voir dire of prospective jurors that the evidence was not going to make much difference either way. Community feelings were going to decide it. Most people were convinced, if they wanted to be, that the charges against the sheriff were politically motivated, perhaps because everything in Searcy County was politically motivated. One of the state’s star witnesses was FBI agent Jack Knox, who would investigate the sheriff off and on for another five years. On cross-examination, Knox insisted that the charges had nothing to do with the approaching election in the sheriff’s race. Mays then asked him if he had not confided to the local Farrah Fawcett look-alike, with whom he had struck up a warm friendship, that the charges had been timed to influence the election. The young woman, who must have reminded the FBI man of Jill Munroe, Fawcett’s role in the then-popular TV series Charlie’s Angels, was in the courtroom. The agent hung his head and muttered something. The judge asked him to speak up.
“Yes,” he said.
The jury acquitted the sheriff on the murder charges but could not reach a verdict on whether he had impeded the investigation. He was tried again for hindering the investigation and the second jury acquitted him, too.
The violence didn’t end with the acquittals. A few months later, someone fired a shotgun at Baysinger as he was on the highway near Harriet. Someone parked a pickup truck with explosives in the carport of Sutterfield’s father at Big Flat.
As for Sheriff Reeves, he kept winning and getting charged with felonies until 1982. Richard Mays defended him in 1978 on federal charges of bagging and selling marijuana that his deputies had confiscated in raids. Reeves was the prime suspect in a state police and FBI investigation of the death of a teenager whose body was found in a car that had wrecked and burned on a county road a few miles north of Marshall in November 1979, but no charges were ever filed.
“The FBI likes to look at me,” the sheriff told a reporter for the Arkansas Gazette.
The FBI, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, and the state police nailed him again in 1982, and this time he and a deputy sheriff were convicted in US District Court at Fort Smith of distributing marijuana. The trial followed the general election by two months. This time the sheriff lost.
Clean elections aren’t guaranteed to produce clean government or even very desirable results. They can only give the public the satisfaction of knowing that the wishes of people who cared enough to vote were reflected with the maximum possible accuracy. The people of Searcy County got reasonably honest elections in 1976 and 1978 and they were happy about it, but I would not warrant that votes were never sold again.