Election night used to be an inspirational nail-biter

Going to vote — taking that important trip to the neighborhood polling place — was always an act of faith. Each voting experience seemed more and more like taking a pledge, making a vow, renewing your faith in democracy.

That visit to the polling place was like the first day of vacation — high hopes for what lay ahead.

We would go off to wherever the county clerk sent us — almost always one of two churches in our neighborhood — with a well-read, dog-eared sample ballot in our hand. There was usually a neighbor on the “Election Board,” which is what they used to call the good people who worked a very long day for not much money. That’s the way it was always done. It was a happy journey, the trip to the polls, even though we weren’t always delighted by the outcome.

But that was then and this now. None of that will happen this year. I won’t go to the polls. I won’t cast my ballot for president in the way I have voted for more presidents (and would-be presidents) than I care to count. Like many of you, I have already voted. It was a tough decision. But I wanted to get it done.

So, 18 days early, with my ballot in hand, precisely inked and signed and sealed, I parked in front of the Registrar of Voters office at the county center. I didn’t go in. I didn’t have to. There was an extremely efficient system at work. I handed my ballot to a clerk at a table with a locked ballot box on it. He thanked me, told me to “Have a good day,” and handed me my “I VOTED” sticker.

I wore it home and put it on my front door — a personal marker on the bumpy road to democracy.


BEFORE I left, I took a long look through the open door of the election department and for one fleeting moment I could have sworn I saw Eeve Lewis, Janice Atkinson — and wasn’t that Gloria Colter passing each other going all directions down the hall?

It was a vision, of course, one of those “blasts from the past.” There are lots of memories inside that door, most of them about the way it was on the nights they counted ballots.

I wonder what Eeve would have offered in her prediction of voter turnout this year. In her 10-year tenure as county clerk, she was always just a few percentage points from the actual number. She also had wise words about polls in general. “The only true poll is the ballot box,” she said.

Eeve is gone. And it will take both a Ouija Board AND a crystal ball to guess the numbers this year. Gloria retired in 2015. When I talked with her last week she said she chose that year because she “couldn’t go through another election.”


STILL LOOKING down that hallway in my mind’s eye as I drove off, I was tripping back to other elections nights, different times. I could have sworn I saw Bob Trowbridge, “Mr. Democrat”, and Jim Groom, the most vocal Republican of the time, in conversation. They were laughing and obviously enjoying each other’s company. Did I say “different times?”

And, of course, I saw the “locals” running for state, county and city offices, waiting their turn to be interviewed by KSRO’s Merle Ross, who had the only quiet room in the building. The ever-present political junkies, clipboards in hand, passed back and forth through the crowd, offering predictions based on “what we know so far.”

Even in the days younger reporters view as prehistoric, there were adventures to be experienced in the counting of ballots — glitches in the system as the reporting of returns progressed, election after election, from the chalkboard, to projectors and finally to computer screens.

Cathy Barnett, our about-to-retire editor, recalls those first screens — only four of them and everybody wanted one. While they were technically reserved for the press, it was always a scramble. It must have been the ’80s, Cathy was a young reporter, when a smart editor sent her and an even-younger editorial assistant (who happened to be our daughter, Suzi) with orders to get a screen each and hold tight. He couldn’t have picked a better pair.

Suzi remembers that venture as a personal triumph as flying wedges of campaign managers and reporters for the weeklies (with deadlines two days hence) hovered and pleaded and even threatened. “It’s hard to explain,” she says now, “how crazy election nights used to be.”

She also recalls the chaos in the PD’s newsroom as deadlines stretched to get as many results as possible in the morning paper. She remembers the city editor rising up in the confusion and hollering, “Would someone just answer that phone?” And, for the first time that night, there was no phone ringing.


NOW, HOW about a quick history tour with the Ghost of Elections Past?

1986: Most of our losers have been good sports. But not all. Judge Ray Byrne, who had served a turbulent, shall we say, term as municipal court judge – when we still had such things — lost his reelection to young Mark Tansil. Byrne didn’t serve out his term; instead he went on sick leave and never came back, although he continued to draw his pay.

Hugh Codding speaking at the Bank of American ground breaking in Santa Rosa in 1967. (Courtesy of the Sonoma County Library)
Hugh Codding speaking at the Bank of American ground breaking in Santa Rosa in 1967. (Courtesy of the Sonoma County Library)

1964: The press had a good time with this one. A hastily organized coalition of “Old Santa Rosa businessmen” – meaning downtown merchants mostly – mounted a fearsome, determined, do-or-die campaign to keep candidate Hugh Codding, the creator, builder and owner of Montgomery Village and Coddingtown, off the City Council. They raised a ton of money, railed against him in PD editorials, and distributed posters around town with a caricature of him looking very much like Satan. Codding received more votes than any candidate in history to that time, didn’t spend a dime and served two terms.

Before he was elected to Congress in a special election, Rep. Don Clausen, seen with President Gerald Ford, was defeated by a Marin County politician who died in a plane crash a month before Election Day. (Press Democrat photo)
Before he was elected to Congress in a special election, Rep. Don Clausen, seen with President Gerald Ford, was defeated by a Marin County politician who died in a plane crash a month before Election Day. (Press Democrat photo)

1962: Marin Democrat Clem Miller, running for his second term in Congress, died in a plane crash a month before the election but won anyway, defeating challenger Don Clausen, who did win the special election and served 20 years.

1950: Sheriff Harry Patteson, running for a fourth term, survived accusations of being the favorite of “gamblers, procurers, white slave syndicates and other racketeers.” Oh yeah, and rumors that he had turned a blind eye to Mafia activity in the county. He won that election and the next one. Served until 1958.

1912: Optometrist John Rinner was a shoo-in for mayor of Santa Rosa — or so everyone said. He had the endorsement of all the members of the City Council and both The Press Democrat and the Santa Rosa Republican (it was a two-paper town in those glory days of the written word). But the rumor went out, passed quickly around the community, that Rinner was opposed to the women’s suffrage movement. He denied it but was defeated by a traveling salesman who courted the women’s vote. John Mercier, whose political career was short-lived, earned the distinction of being the first successful write-in candidate in California history.

And 2020: All we can say is (to be continued).

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine