Jim Bradshaw: Bag of political tricks once included dummy candidates
It’s not even the Fourth of July, but political signs are beginning to pop up across south Louisiana in anticipation of this fall’s primary election. This year, as in practically every state election in recent memory, most of the people named on the signs will actually end up on the ballot. That wasn’t always the case in the rambunctious days when there were only two political factions that counted in Louisiana: Long and Anti-Long.
Both sides used every trick in the book to gain whatever advantage possible, and one of the favorites was to sign up a bunch of “dummy” candidates. In those days, every local candidate could nominate people for the pool from which commissioners would be picked to watch the voting booths. The more dummies a faction could afford to put up — there were filing fees and other expenses to be considered — the greater the odds of its commissioners being selected.
That was important in the days when it was important to see that a vote that was bought stayed bought.
A dummy candidate was expected to withdraw from the election at the last moment — after the election commissioners had been picked. The candidate would not be on the ballot, but his or her commissioners would still be eligible to man the polls.
Those commissioners could legally “assist” a voter in marking bis ballot, and they made sure that voters got all the assistance they needed — going into the booth with them to watch how they marked their ballot.
Huey Long, who in the early 1930s was called “the most entertaining tyrant in American history” by the Washington Post, used dummies regularly, perhaps most notoriously in the race in 1932 for the U.S. Senate. The incumbent was Edwin Broussard, no friend of Huey’s. The Kingfish supported John H. Overton and used his full bag of political shenanigans to support him.
Long’s dummy candidate scheme worked so well that in some precincts Broussard had no poll watchers at all. In New Orleans alone, Overton had more than 1,000 commissioners to only 60 for Broussard.
The outcome was predictable: an easy win for Overton.
Broussard challenged the election on the grounds that there had been rampant corruption. Between October 1932 and December 1933, a special subcommittee of the U.S. Senate held three contentious hearings in Louisiana, during which it was assailed with a “maelstrom of political passion and bitter factional controversy,” but not a whole lot of facts.
The record of the proceedings runs to 3,886 pages printed in small type. Committee members said they agreed that Long’s machine influenced the selection of commissioners by using dummy candidates, and they admitted that the Long organization “absolutely dominated the politics of the state,” but also found there was not enough proof of corruption to keep Overton from taking his seat.
Broussard supporters tried one more time, asking the full Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections to unseat both Long and Overton. There was another “maelstrom of passion,” but Long and Overton kept their seats.
Through it all, Huey simply smiled, shrugged and defended his dummy candidates. He said he didn’t invent the practice, he just perfected it.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.>