Cumberland Times-News

Columns

July 2, 2014

Looking Back 1950: Half a century working the polls

— Karl D. Bachman was the son of a politician, but he never wanted to be a politician himself. What he did strive to do was to make sure that the voting system in his district of Cumberland worked as smoothly as possible for nearly half a century.

    Bachman was dubbed the “Dean of Poll Workers” because he served as an election judge or clerk in 24 consecutive city elections.

“If any would wish to check through the books of Ward 2, Precinct 2, at the Canada Hose House, it would probably be decade after decade before he would find a book without the name Bachman,” the Cumberland Evening Times reported in a profile of Bachman in 1950.

At that time he had served in 21 consecutive elections, which was believed to have been a record in Cumberland.

He had lived and worked in his city district all his life. Though his father, Henry Bachman, had served as both a city councilman and an Allegany County commissioner, Karl was happy as an electrician for the B&O Railroad. He lived on North Centre with his wife Mary and together they raised three sons.

Bachman  started working at the polls before the city switched to a commission form of government in 1910.

“Back in those days, we had 11 members in Council, one from each of the six wards, five at-large, and a mayor at-large. The council members were paid $75 a year,” Bachman told the newspaper.

However, he didn’t get involved in working the polls out of a need to do his civic duty. He did it because he got to “break the monotony of my job, even though I lost money,” he said.

Bachman’s experiences also provide a picture of how elections changed over the first half of the 20th century.

“Well, in those days, you could take a ballot home with you, make it and then return it,” Bachman said.

He pointed out that voting places were usually in someone’s home and the ballots were passed through an open window.

“Two lines of men would stand at the window and they could challenge votes to keep out anyone trying to vote twice or folks from one ward trying to vote in another,” Bachman said. “The ballot was a far cry from the one we have today. All it was was a piece of paper, probably scratch paper, with the names of the candidates printed on it. You could get them from any electioneer. He carried them around in his pocket and handed them out.”

Bachman’s most interesting city election would have to be the one that happened during the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day Flood, which also happened to be city election day.

The morning started with voters coming to the Canada Hose Company to vote, but as the rain continued, “by noon when water began coming though the floor, moved across the street to Rice’s Auto Repair Shop,” Bachman said.

They had barely gotten things set up there when the continually rising water forced them to move once again. The new polling place became the Webster Wallpaper Store on North Centre Street. When the water reached the steps of the store, the polling place was moved to the Centre Street School.

That is where the polls closed and the workers were tabulating the votes until 2 a.m. At that point, the water was so high throughout the city, that they were marooned in the school for another three hours.

At one point, while the election judges were tabulating the precinct results, they hear a loud noise that sounded like an explosion.

“One of the women screamed ‘fire’ and another started to pray,” Bachman recalled. “I was pretty shaken by the noise but went out into the hall to look. It wasn’t smoke but dust. A gust of wind had blown out three windows in the front of the school, loosening plaster, causing plaster dust to rise, and scattering glass everywhere.”

Bachman said that he never knew of any deliberate effort at voter fraud. The nearest anyone came to accusing a poll worker of misconduct was when a voter came in to vote and spent some time talking to someone. An election judge, who thought the man had voted, put the blank ballot on the box. This caused an uproar until things got straightened out and the man was given another ballot and allowed to cast his vote.

Although organizations nowadays complain about the lack of people willing to donate their time to help the community, Bachman was already seeing such a change from the beginning of the century to 1950.

In 1950, while Bachman was looking forward to his retirement, he still wanted to continue working the polls.

“I hope to continue working at the polls as long as I’m able to write,” he said.

Newspaper notices show that he did continue his streak of uninterrupted service. His last election was in 1956. He died the following year.

    You can find more true stories of the region in James Rada’s books available at your local bookstores.

Contact James Rada at jimrada@yahoo.com or 410-698-3571.

 

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