Retired Smith County clerk recalls past elections

Released by Smith County:

When Mary Morris began working in the Smith County Clerk's Office in 1953, votes were cast on paper ballots at one location on Election Day.

Back then, Smith County was predominantly Democratic and there were only 44 polling precincts in the county. "I could count on my hand the number of Republicans we had," Ms. Morris said.

Voters would sit at a table to fill out their ballots in the County Clerk's Office on Election Day. It wouldn't be until years later that the law would change, allowing early voting and polling places in each precinct, she said.

Ms. Morris became a deputy county clerk in 1953. In 1979, she became the first female to be elected as county clerk in Smith County and was re-elected until she retired in 1998.

Throughout the years, Ms. Morris saw the elections process change with technology, population growth and the shift to a predominantly Republican county.

Smith County now has 73 polling precincts and will deploy about 300 electronic voting machines at 34 Vote Centers on Election Day, November 8, 2016.

"Everything is so advanced compared to what it used to be," Ms. Morris said.

In 1948, Ms. Morris was working for a title company in the old county courthouse, which has since been demolished. She took a job as deputy county clerk in 1953, and took dictation of Commissioners Courts minutes and Probate Court rulings.

At the time, there were eight or 10 people working in the County Clerk's Office, and they all worked wherever they were needed, she said. Back then, the County Clerk's Office handled all of the elections.

Ms. Morris' main duty during election time was taking care of the mail out ballots. She typed everything out because nothing was printed, she added.

"There's a volume of work, blood and sweat that goes into the election business," Ms. Morris said. "No one can know how hard they (election workers) work. You are under pressure; you know it has to be right."

They used Shoup voting machines, which were large, cumbersome and hard to handle. She recalls one falling out of the back of a truck on the way to a polling location.

In 1978, Smith County began using the punch card voting system. Voters would fill out their cards while standing inside a metal voting booth with red, white and blue canvas curtains. One of the historic booths was recently uncovered and sits on display for voters in the lobby of the Elections Office.

On Election Day, the chairman at each polling place had to count the paper ballots before bringing them back to the County Clerk's Office at the courthouse. Ms. Morris and the other deputy county clerks had to wait until all boxes were in before they were locked in a large vault.

"We could see the sun rising in the east a lot of times before they (the boxes) all got in," she said.

If the precinct chairman was taking too long, they would sometimes send a sheriff's deputy out to see what the trouble was, she said, adding that there were no cell phones in those days.

General elections were always hard and a lot of work, but after working a presidential election, "you felt like you had been through the ringer," Ms. Morris said.

She said they used the punch card system for about 16 years, and it was far better than the paper ballot, where voters had to mark an X by the candidate of their choice. "It was fast. Punch cards were the most modern thing out," she said.

She recalls writing a letter to the Commissioners Court just before she left office, telling them that their elections system had worked well but that it was time to follow larger counties and go to a computerized system.

After she retired, Smith County started using the computerized voting machines and formed an Elections Office, apart from the County Clerk's Office.

She said elections is a full-time job for someone to oversee it throughout the year.

Ms. Morris still takes a trip to the polls for every election and plans to do so for as long as she is able to get there. "I wouldn't miss it," she said.

"Voting is so important," Ms. Morris said. "I hope everyone will get out there and vote because every vote counts."

Ms. Morris believes the elections system is in good shape. "It's not rigged; it's not broken," she said. "We conducted our elections as right as we possibly could. I believe that still holds true for the whole state of Texas. We are all schooled by the Secretary of State."

She said she gained a good experience by running for office.

Ms. Morris was first elected in the May 6, 1978 Primary Election, when she received 12,041 votes, according to the Election Return Record Book No. 5, which has years of handwritten election results. Ms. Morris' opponents, Preston E. Christian, the son of the retiring County Clerk, received 3,576 votes; and Grady Talbert Yarbrough, an educator, received 1,938 votes. Ms. Morris moved on to the General Election unopposed that year, receiving 14,980 votes on November 7, 1978.

"I took every step I possibly could every day to get where I could be with the people," Ms. Morris said of running for office. "You have to get out there and be with them."