Operation Secret Ballot: The 1966 GOP Election Reform Project
by Paul Hollrah (h/t to Mike McCarville at the McCarville Report)
On Tuesday evening, September 10, 1963, I attended my first meeting of the Tulsa County Young Republicans. It was the first political meeting I’d ever attended, and as a result of attending that one meeting, and the things I learned there, my life was changed forever.
The guest speaker that evening was a man named Walter Hall, the Ballot Security Officer for the Oklahoma Republican State Committee. In his speech Hall described in shocking detail the widespread election fraud practiced by Oklahoma Democrats in every election. He began by saying that forty-four of Oklahoma’s seventy-seven counties had not provided a secret ballot for voters since statehood in 1907, and that local Democrats regularly used every conceivable illegal device to intimidate voters and to fraudulently control the outcome of elections.
Although state law required that one of the three election officials in every precinct must be a member of the minority party, Oklahoma Democrats systematically appointed bogus Republicans to the minority positions. Consequently, in many precincts in those forty-four counties, all of the election officials were, in fact, Democrats.
When voters entered the polls on Election Day they found three Democrats seated behind a table. After signing the entry log they were handed a paper ballot and a pencil, and since there were no facilities for marking ballots in secret, they were obliged to place their ballot on the table and to mark their ballot while the three election officials looked on. If the election officials saw a voter mark his ballot for even a single Republican candidate, a number of things could happen. In many Oklahoma counties the welfare rolls were divided up by precincts and kept on the tables in the polling places on Election Day. If a welfare recipient was so unwise as to vote for a Republican, his/her name was removed from the welfare rolls the instant the pencil marked the ballot. If the errant voter was a state or county employee, he ran the risk of being unemployed the same day. And if he was a property owner, he often found his property tax assessment doubled or tripled overnight.
In some counties the election officials were so brazen as to keep a trash can next to the ballot box, and any ballot with a Republican vote on it went directly into the trash can. The only ballots in the ballot box were straight Democratic tickets.In some counties they were a bit more subtle and used a technique that Walter Hall referred to as the “lead-under-the-thumbnail” trick. That technique involved breaking the lead from a pencil and tucking it lengthwise under a thumbnail.When the election official took a completed ballot from a voter, and the ballot contained a vote for a Republican candidate, the official merely scraped the lead across the face of the ballot, folded the ballot in the normal fashion, and placed it in the ballot box.
When the ballot boxes were opened and the ballots were removed, state law required that all ballots with “extraneous” markings be classified as “mutilated” ballots and not counted in the final tally.In other counties, election officials would allow a thumbnail to grow very long over a period of months preceding an election. On the day of the election they would file a sharp edge on the thumbnail so that, when they took a ballot containing a Republican vote from a voter and prepared to fold it, they merely flicked the sharp nail through the edge of the paper. Ballots with small rips and tears were considered to be “mutilated” and were discarded along with those having extraneous markings.
I was absolutely appalled at the speaker’s endless recounting of official corruption in the state’s electoral process. It was hard for me to believe that such corrupt practices could be standard practice in the greatest democracy on Earth, in the twentieth century, but there was no reason to doubt the truth of what he said.Having been an interested observer of the Democratic Party for many years, and having learned much more about it through many friendly debates with my in-laws, I was all but convinced that the party was just another large-scale criminal conspiracy, masquerading as a political party. After hearing Walter Hall’s presentation that evening I was absolutely certain of it.
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When the speaker had concluded his remarks and the meeting was adjourned, I didn’t hesitate for a moment but walked directly to the front of the room. As I approached Mr. Hall, several Young Republicans had already gathered around him and were vying for his attention.
I stood directly in front of him, and when our eyes met I held out my hand. As we shook hands I said, “Mr. Hall, my name is Paul Hollrah. I’ve just recently moved to Oklahoma, but I’d like to volunteer to form a committee to raise funds and to provide voting booths for all of those counties that don’t have them.”
He looked at me, chuckled, and said, “You don’t really think the Democrats would let you get away with that, do you? They throw us a bone now and then,” he continued, “or we find them fighting amongst themselves and we manage to get somebody elected. We’re a distinct minority in Oklahoma and I’m afraid we have to be satisfied with that.”
The people standing around the speaker nodded in agreement. “Yeah, that’s right!” they chorused.
I was very disappointed. I thought they’d be angry. As the primary victims of the fraud, I thought they’d be mad enough to do something about it, but they weren’t. They proceeded from the assumption that if they tried, they were bound to fail – and, chances are they would have.
However, on February 8, 1966, I was elected Chairman of the Tulsa County Young Republicans. It didn’t take long for me to conclude that there was one major benefit to being Chairman of the Tulsa County YR’s. As chairman of the YR’s, I had power – not a lot of power, but enough power – and I knew that if I played my cards right I’d have enough power to do something about election fraud in Oklahoma.
I had not forgotten the speech I heard at the first YR meeting I attended with Joe McGraw in September 1963. After being thoroughly rebuffed in my first bold attempt at organizing a reform movement, and after witnessing widespread fraud in the 1964 general election, I made a second attempt in early 1965 – but again to no avail.
Republicans simply didn’t believe that reform was possible in the face of Democratic opposition. For Democrats, vote fraud was a way of life. It was their bread and butter. It was the means by which they had maintained one-party control in states from Texas to Virginia for the better part of a century. And since Democrats controlled all county and state election boards, the legislatures, the major law enforcement offices, and the courts, few Republicans were willing to take them on. They had asked God for the patience to endure the things they could not change, for the will to change the things they could change, and for the wisdom to know the difference. Unfortunately, they’d put vote fraud in the category of “things they could not change.”
I was convinced that it not only could be done, it had to be done.
In mid-February, just days after my election, I created an organization called Operation: Secret Ballot. I appointed five YRs, two of whom, Johnny Cherblanc and Dave Nalley, I appointed as project coordinators. Both were active members of the Tulsa Jaycees.. I made no public announcements, there was no fanfare, I just did it. More importantly, I had a plan. I knew that very little reform could be accomplished if the effort was widely viewed as being a partisan operation. What we needed was a non-partisan front with bipartisan support.
Through John Cherblanc and Dave Nalley we convinced the Tulsa Jaycees to invite Walter Hall to be guest speaker at a future meeting. Hall spoke at the June meeting of the Tulsa Jaycees and the result was totally predictable. They were outraged at what he told them about vote fraud in Oklahoma. We had our non-partisan front.
Gene Vinyard, of the Tulsa Jaycees, was selected as project coordinator for Operation: Secret Ballot. And after a quiet conversation with one or two fair-minded, idealistic members of the Tulsa County Young Democrats…young Democrats who actually believed in honest elections and the Rule of Law…the project was launched. Operation: Secret Ballot was an organization of mostly Young Republicans, with Jaycee leadership and publicity, and enough Young Democrats to validate our claim to bipartisanship.
Working with a cabinetmaker from the Jaycees, we designed a voting booth that could be made from simple one-by-two white pine frames, covered with unbleached muslin, and assembled with offset hinges to allow easy folding and stacking for storage.
The Operation: Secret Ballot coordinating team was doing an excellent job. Gene Vinyard, Johnny Cherblanc, and the others raised more than $5,000 for the project – enough to purchase all of the materials we needed – and the Tulsa Rig and Reel Company loaned us one of their abandoned steel fabricating shops in West Tulsa for our assembly operation.
In late July we sent letters to the county election boards in all of the forty-four counties where the secret ballot didn’t exist, informing them that we’d have voting booths available for them, free of charge, by election day, November 8. All they had to do was tell us how many they needed and we’d deliver them to their county courthouse during the first week of November.
By mid-August our assembly line was operational and we started producing voting booths. Every Saturday and every Sunday, from mid-August through late October, the cavernous interior of our voting booth “factory” echoed with the sound of saws, hammers, and staplers. And as the voting booths came off the end of our assembly line they were folded, stacked, and stored along one side of the building. As the weeks passed our inventory grew and grew.
When responses started coming in from county election boards, we found a mixed reaction. Some counties didn’t respond at all, but among those who did there were both written and oral responses. For the most part, the letters we received said, “Thank you! We’ve never been able to afford voting booths in our county.” And they went on to say how many they needed and where to deliver them.
The oral responses were never direct, they were always sent to us through third parties. Basically, they were very simple messages. They said, “If you come into our county with your d----ed voting booths we’ll be waiting for you with shotguns and rifles and you’ll all go back to Tulsa in pine boxes!”
We had many threats on our lives, and knowing of many cases of violence by Democrats, we took them all very seriously.
In mid-October Governor Henry Bellmon commented publicly on our election reform project, and within a day or two we were contacted by the Adjutant General of the Oklahoma National Guard. The General told us that he would make National Guard troops and trucks available to us whenever we needed them. All we had to do was tell him which counties were to receive voting booths and the number of voting booths to be delivered to each location.
During the first week of November 1966, the National Guard loaded and delivered enough voting booths to supply somewhere between eight hundred and a thousand precincts across the state. Under the glare of public scrutiny the Democrats were afraid not to use them, and on Tuesday, November 8, Oklahoma voters went to the polls and elected a new governor, Tulsa Senator Dewey Bartlett, the second Republican governor in Oklahoma history; they elected a Republican attorney general, Okllahoma City attorney G.T. Blankenship, the first Republican attorney general in state history; they elected Republican congressmen in two of the state’s six congressional districts; and they elected a Republican state labor commissioner.
We were all happy, of course, that our friend, Dewey Bartlett, would be occupying the governor’s chair for the next four years, but the most significant outcome of Operation: Secret Ballot was the election of G.T. Blankenship as attorney general.
Within months after taking office, Blankenship announced major criminal indictments against the most powerful and corrupt Democrat politician in the state. The evidence of official corruption was overwhelming and when a guilty verdict was returned at trial he was sentenced to eight years in the state reformatory at McAlester.
The attorney general also stunned Oklahomans when he announced an official investigation of wrongdoing among the justices of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The court was comprised of nine justices, all Democrats, and when the facts emerged Oklahomans learned that a majority of the justices had been taking bribes of from $15,000 to $25,000 to influence their decisions on cases before the court. With $100,000 or $150,000 to spend, a litigant could buy any decision he wanted from the state’s highest court. Blankenship’s revelations first came on the floor of the House, where he served as a representative.
In the end, several justices were successfully impeached and removed from the bench, while others resigned rather than face the public humiliation of impeachment.
A small group of determined citizens from Tulsa County gave the State of Oklahoma the biggest dose of political reform it ever had. The Tulsa Jaycees received the National Community Service Award from the U.S. Jaycees for their role in the project.
However, in Republican circles, Operation: Secret Ballot was never mentioned. As I would learn in the months and years to follow, it was typical of the recognition that the Republican Party showered on its best and brightest. In the Republican Party there was no such thing as recognition for achievement; the only message was “Get up the money, get out the vote, and get the hell out of my face.” Nothing has ever changed in that regard.
Nevertheless, it is almost certain that Henry Bellmon’s first term as governor (1963-67) and the Operation: Secret Ballot project of 1966 were, together, the two political developments in Oklahoma history that are the basis of the political renaissance that has made Oklahoma the reddest of red states.
Paul R. Hollrah is a former Sunoco governmental affairs executive. He lives near Locust Grove.