Jerry Summers: Chain Voting In Chattanooga

Saturday, April 17, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

With the recent controversy over the voting in the presidential election, Republican President Trump’s claim that voting by mail would lead to massive voter fraud and Democrat Joe Biden claiming an on-going effort to suppress a large turnout to support him, it is time to re-address the history of voting in the inner city of Chattanooga in what would commonly be known as the “controlled wards.”

Illegal gamblers had developed a strong political base during the period of World War II up until around the 1960s when the Republican Party under William (Bill) Brock, III of Lookout Mountain defeated Wilkes Thrasher, Jr. for the 3rd Congressional District seat in Congress.

The experience of the returning veterans to McMinn County in putting up a slate of candidates against the political machine that was entrenched in that county led to an armed gun battle on election day that was known as the “Battle of Athens.”

After the gunfire had ended the veterans' slate of candidates had prevailed in the election and the power of the political machine was broken.

The grandson of the former mayor of Chattanooga and Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Alexander W. Chambliss was inspired by the results in McMinn County and came up with the creative idea of trying a reform movement in Chattanooga.

“Jac” Chambliss was a lawyer who represented many of the elite companies and corporations as well as many of the prominent families in the area with many residing on Lookout and Signal Mountains.

Using his personal and business contacts he formed a group of individuals known as the “Good Government League” (GGL) and started its own reform movement against those that exerted much control over the population in many areas of the town, both black and white, and who were often connected to the illegal whiskey (moonshine) and gambling industries that primarily flourished in the city of Chattanooga.

Some in the group chose as their “reform” candidate in 1948 an experienced and controversial trial lawyer by the name of Raulston Schoolfield who with the support of the silent background approval of the so-called “power structure” and the possible tactic of “chain voting” in the other wards would elect Schoolfield as the Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge in Division I.

This combined with Schoolfield’s representation of many gamblers and bootleggers in his legal career as a trial lawyer from 1926 swept him into office in the 1948 mid-term election and he was re-elected for an eight-year regular term in 1950.

“Jac” Chambliss’ goal of electing “a reform candidate” was achieved except that Judge Raulston Schoolfield was never “reformed.” He would be in constant political conflict with the organized Chattanooga Bar Association, the Chattanooga Times newspaper, and the Good Government League.

Schoolfield would be impeached in 1958 by the Tennessee legislature on three minor charges out of 31, disbarred in 1960, but would later be elected as a non-lawyer General Session Court judge in 1974 and re-elected in 1982 shortly before his death on October 5 that year of a heart attack.

“Chain voting” was a popular tactic employed by ward bosses to affect an election.  It was used in many elections to increase or decrease results and may have been in place during Raulston Schoolfield’s upset victory?

Voters would meet at a designated location and received a filled-out paper ballot that would list the names of the candidates preferred by the political machine.

The voter would put the completed ballot in their pocket and go to the voting precinct and receive a legitimate blank ballot.

After going behind the voting curtain, they would put the blank ballot in their pocket and place the one with the slate of favorite candidates in the metal ballot box in front of the precinct election official.

Having fulfilled their constitutional right to participate in the electoral process, the voter would then return to the original designated location, hand over the blank ballot to be filled out to be used by another dedicated citizen in the election “chain.”

They would then be rewarded with some type of liquid refreshment, either legal or illegal, and they could leave knowing that they had performed their public duty.

While the 2020 presidential and congressional candidates expressed their concerns about having a fair election it was a legitimate one in the post war era in Chattanooga!

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Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

 

           


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