Throughout the last two and a half centuries of the United States of America’s existence, one particular aspect of government of the people, by the people, and for the people has remained crucial: secure, fair, and free elections. While this nation has not always had a perfect record in that regard, its electoral systems have grown and improved over time so that citizens can have confidence in the integrity of election results. But there have been notable exceptions – just ask anyone who lived in Athens, Tennessee in the 1940s.
During World War II, 10% of the population of Athens went away to fight a difficult war against injustice and tyranny. That 10% took a good deal of “fighting spirit” with them, and the war against injustice and tyranny at home was lost for a time. A man named Paul Cantrell took over the political system in Athens and the surrounding McMinn County, winning his election as Sheriff despite allegations of voter fraud. At the heart of those allegations was the locked ballot box. Cantrell and his lackeys had monkeyed with the ballot boxes to keep themselves in power.
Over the next ten years of Cantrell’s dominance in McMinn County politics, the ballot box continued to be a source of angst for voters. It became common practice for the sheriff’s office to collect the locked boxes and count the votes at the county jail without allowing anyone to see the results for themselves. Doubtless, this had the effect of lessening the voters’ confidence in elections. The situation went from bad to worse when Cantrell turned out to be as corrupt as a big city boss. He and his deputies earned fees for each arrest performed or citation written, and they became notorious for spurious arrests and fines meted out to innocent passersby.
The tyranny was ended when the fighting boys returned home from the war. A group of feisty veterans decided to run their own slate of non-partisan candidates to take down the corrupt Cantrell regime. They succeeded in doing just that, but only after confronting Cantrell’s deputies at the county jail and taking back the confiscated ballot boxes after a battle that went down in history as the common man’s victory over the crooked political machine: The Battle of Athens, 1946.
There’s a reason why this story continues to be re-told again and again and why it was made into the Emmy-nominated film An American Story in 1992. Deep down, Americans are still motivated by a desire for security of their property, their freedom, and integrity of their elections; they are driven to fiercely combat any threat to that security. At the end of the day, it is a comfort to know that their homes are locked and safe, that their liberties are “locked” into the law of the land, and that their votes, when cast, are safely locked in secure ballot boxes. May the legacy of the Athens GIs never be forgotten.