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Election Central

Tales of the H-T: blog posts taken from or inspired by The Herald-Times archive at the Monroe County History Center

Blog post by Rod Spaw

 

Election night is a special time to be around a newspaper office. It’s sort of like Christmas Eve in Santa’s workshop; weeks of careful planning and preparation come down to a few panicked hours of execution. It is both exhilarating and nerve wracking.

In the time before electronic voting machines changed how ballots were cast and counted, and before the Internet removed much of the drama from the reporting of vote totals, there was one place to be in Bloomington on election night, one place where participatory democracy was served to the public alongside doughnuts and coffee.

For at least three decades, the Herald-Telephone (later the Herald-Times) building on South Walnut Street transformed itself into Election Central in November of election years. The doors were thrown open, and everyone was welcome. Politicians rubbed elbows with reporters and constituents alike. All jostled together and strained to see as women ascended stepladders to write numbers on large, lined boards against one wall of the newspaper’s front office.

Further back in the building was the newsroom, and there were no gates or gatekeepers in those days to prevent people from wandering in to speak with a reporter or editor, which they often did to discuss the results of the day’s balloting.

Bob Zaltsberg, retired editor of the Herald-Times, joined the newspaper in 1976 as a reporter and sportswriter. He said he had never seen anything like the scene at the H-T on election night.

“When you walked in, to the left side of the door was a big board,” Zaltsberg said. “A company would bring in these big, foam boards and put up a wall. They already were lined precinct by precinct, with names on the left side of the board.

Shannon Wagoner (on ladder) fills in vote returns at the Herald-Telephone office as Janine Tjardes-Bullock, right, reads them to her. This photo is from an election in the 1970s.  (HT photo, courtesy of Shannon Wagoner)

“At 6 p.m., the office opened. We had deployed members of the League of Women Voters as observers in each precinct. They would phone results of each precinct, and we had a person who would write in the totals from top to bottom. At the same time, the public would start gathering.”

Also welcome were reporters from other news shops in Bloomington, Zaltsberg said.

“WFIU would set up and do their election coverage from the H-T,” he recalled. “They would interview candidates and do reports from there. Some of the IDS (Indiana Daily Student) reporters were there, as well as other news outlets.”

Shannon Wagoner began working at the Herald-Telephone in 1971. For every election thereafter, until the practice stopped sometime around the 2000 election, she was one of the people who posted totals.

Wagoner said it was a team effort.

“People were calling in from every precinct. Then, Janine (Tjardes-Bullock) would read the results to me. She and I were the duo. I would come to work the next day and my legs were so sore. We were just up and down (ladders) all night.”

Once a batch of totals had been posted, Wagoner said her daughter Jamie would run those results back to the newsroom. After three of four precincts had reported, another group of employees would add those numbers to make new cumulative totals, which also went on the board.

Linda Breeden was one of the H-T employees running the numbers as they were reported to the newspaper.

“I started my employment in October (1976) and got initiated into election night in November when I was given a calculator and told to add precinct vote totals,” she wrote in a Facebook message. “In my years at a bank, we only used large adding machines with a full keyboard. That first election night I learned real fast how to use a calculator without looking at the keys.’

It was standing room only at the H-T in 1976 when Jimmie Carter defeated Gerald Ford in the race for president of the United States. Photo from the HT Archives.

Wagoner said there would be 6-8 employees assigned to tabulation duty each election. A tradition developed among them of walking a short distance south of the H-T to Gib & Denzil’s restaurant for dinner before the polls closed.

Another election night tradition were doughnuts. Or more precisely, as Zaltsberg described it, “boxes of doughnuts and gallons of black coffee” available for staff and visitors in the employee cafeteria.

“We’d be there sometimes until after midnight” Wagoner said.

Zaltsberg said the election night tradition would not have been possible without the cooperation of the League of Women Voters of Monroe County, whose members would supply precinct numbers to the newspaper at the same time or even earlier than the County Clerk’s office would receive them.

“It was our deal, but we couldn’t have done it without the League of Women in the 1970s and ’80s,” he said.,

H-T employees work the phones to get precinct returns in the 1988 election. From the HT Archives.

It also helped that the Herald-Telephone until 1989 was an afternoon newspaper, meaning customers received their paper the afternoon following the eletion, which Zaltsberg said made for a more relaxed night before in the newsroom.

“Before we went morning, we didn’t have to get results to readers until noon the next day,” he said.

Election Central continued for another decade after the change to a morning publication cycle, but Zaltsberg said it wasn’t quite the same. Because reporters and editors were facing tight deadlines as returns were being tabulated, it became more difficult to allow free access to the newsroom

Zaltsberg said another change happened with the advent of electronic voting machines. When election returns were tabulated at the clerk’s office, as opposed to the precincts, he said the H-T could not count on being first with the results.

As the newspaper’s editor after 1985, Zaltsberg said he probably was as responsible as anyone for ending the Election Central tradition, but it was not without regret.

“I think it created a community, and it helped create reporter-source relationships because they would all be there and you could have a face-to-face relationship,” he said. “A lot of people in the community were disappointed (when it ended). Some newsroom people were, too.”

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