A Note from Cottonwood Corners

“COUNTY VOTES ON OLD LAW — Old Measures Submitted in Gregory County and No One Knows the Difference” was the headline at the top of page eight in the November 19, 1914, issue of The Mitchell Capital.

According to that paper, the Gregory County voters in 1914 were handed a ballot when they came to the polling place which was incorrect.  The ballot contained items which had been approved overwhelmingly by South Dakota voters two years earlier.

Either in the way of a deliberate hoax, or through an official blunder of some kind, four measures which had been adopted in the 1912 election were erroneously submitted again to the voters of Gregory County in 1914.  They were part of the referred measures on the 1914 ballot.  It is thought that an error or deliberate substitution occurred when the 1914 ballot was prepared for the Gregory County.

One of the special ballots sent out to the various polling places in the county that year contained the Richards primary law, the headlight law, the herd law, and the county seat law.  The ballot was dated November 3, 1914.  All of these being 1912 proposals and none of them were legally up for consideration in 1914.

A large percentage of the voters registered either in favor of or in opposition to these “phoney” measures.  In view of the fact that the Richards law pulled out a large majority here two years ago it is rather interesting to observe that it failed to pass this time by a vote of 735 to 937.  The headlight law, now in operation, was the only one of the four old measures that found favor.  It passed by a vote of 119 to 620.

This bogus ballot in Gregory County took the place of the special ballot submitting the question of calling a constitutional convention.

It has been impossible to learn whether other counties had a similar experience or whether the ballot error was merely a local condition.  In any event the incident probably stands out as one of the greatest jokers ever occurring in a South Dakota campaign.

Voters knew that a new primary law was being submitted at the recent election (the Coffey petition law), and for that reason did not recognize the Richards measure as an intrusion on the 1914 ballot.

The correct official South Dakota ballot for 1914 contained eight Constitutional Amendments, two Initiated Laws, and one Referred Law which the voters were asked to approve or reject.  With all the statewide and local candidates to decide upon in addition to these eleven ballot issues, voters spent a lot of time in the voting booth making their decisions on that important day.

The “Annual Review of the Progress of South Dakota for 1912” which appeared in the 1913 South Dakota Legislative Manual, reported:  “At the November election the people approved a novel primary election law initiated through the efforts of Richard Richards of Huron.  The law contemplated very radical changes in the methods of nominating candidates for public office, both elective and appointive.  An important amendment to the Constitution was also approved providing that the value of corporate franchises may be taxed.”

An editorial in the January 15, 1915 issue of the Hot Springs Weekly Star commenting on the 1914 election and ballot made these observations:  “There was a great deal of complaint at the last general election to the effect that the different propositions, both constitutional amendments and referred laws, were so presented that the voter could not get any intelligent idea as to what he was expected to vote upon, and this is charged with being the partial cause of so many voting no.  Bills have been prepared by Lundley, of Gregory, and another by Hall of the house, which provided a means between the long publication of the law complete on the old ballot, and the short indefinite statements under the existing law.  The proposition being to require the attorney general, with the governor and secretary of state to prepare a short, comprehensive statement as to the effect of an act, and attach it after the title upon the ballot, the statement to be confined to not exceeding 250 words.  It is claimed for this that it will give the voter an idea of what the effect of his vote should be, and keep it within a limit which he would have time to read at the time of voting.”

Over the years, this has often been a complaint expressed by voters in South Dakota.

Gregory County was not alone in having election and ballot issues during the 1914 election.  It seems as though Davison County (Mitchell) had a problem with the election of the county treasurer.  John Althen filed suit to contest the election of Charles Fowler.

The judge hearing the case commented that the “case is peculiar.”  “This case presents a rather peculiar proposition,” declared Judge Smith concerning the admissibility of the Second Ward ballots.  The election officials of that ward were either unusually negligent of their duties or the ballots have been tampered with.”

Later, it was suggested that a Grand Jury investigate the procedures of the Davison County officials in their conducting of the 1914 election.  After considerable legal and political moves, Charles Fowler was declared the winner on July 1, 1915.

In Indiana, an Indianapolis man completed applications for himself and his dog to vote in the 1914 election.  On Election Day another fellow who was not registered to vote went to the poll and cast his ballot, using the name of the dog.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on December 1, 2021

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