What happens if a civil servant runs for re-election and loses but does not leave office?
Because of Donald Trump’s stubbornness, anxious people should hope he wasn’t inspired by Madison County Sheriff Hubert Davis, whose rejection after the 1950 loss is the most shocking example in North Carolina history.
Madison is a mountainous, sparsely populated (22,135 inhabitants) county 20 miles north of Asheville. Election fraud and political violence have been embedded in his culture from the beginning.
After the state legislature established the county in 1851, it authorized the Madison electorate to choose the city as the county seat. Marshall won by one vote. Tradition has it that the man who provided the margin was given a packet of turnips to encourage his support.
As the Civil War approached, pro-union sentiment was strong in Madison, which had few slave owners and many smallholders. At a meeting in 1861, an angry confrontation ensued between pro-union men and the secession sheriff. The sheriff fired into the crowd and hit a boy. The boy’s father was shot dead.
For much of history, Madison has been a faithful Republican. During the first century, a Republican held the strongest county office, the sheriff, except for one term. In 1950, Democrats set up a challenger, Elymas Ponder, who spent ten years in the county school board.
His brother, Zeno, helped run the campaign. The youngest of 13 children, Zeno, graduated from NC State University with a degree in soil chemistry. During World War II, he worked on the Manhattan project that developed the atomic bomb.
After the war, he returned home and began teaching veterans under the GI bill. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal inspired him to believe government action could improve life in poor county. Republicans thought his teaching contained too much political speech. They complained and the government stopped the classes.
Zeno years later told an interviewer that he was not conservative because “there was very little if we had to conserve something.” He wanted a government that offered more people the opportunity to “enjoy the good things in life”.
Ponder believed the election of Democrats would help Madison get more paths, schools, and economic development from the Democrat-led state government. He became an electoral registrar and advertised New Deal policy in the county and registered new voters.
On election day, this work paid off. His brother won. The sheriff in office, Hubert Davis, cried for an irregularity. He claimed to have won, but the results were changed.
Although the vote confirmed Ponder’s narrow victory, Davis would not give up. He refused to hand over the keys to the sheriff’s office and prison. He provided the office with armed representatives and placed a machine gun in front of him.
The Supreme Court judge ordered Davis to resign from the office, but he refused. Two months after the election, another judge repeated the order and was fined for contempt of court. Finally, Davis let go.
EY Ponder served as sheriff for the next 36 years 32 when Zeno built one of North Carolina’s most powerful political machines.
Zeno Ponder ran for office only once, in 1964 he was the seat of the state senate. After apparently winning the Democratic pre-election, his opponent demanded fraud. Public investigators were sent to examine the county’s poll books but were not found. No last known person or multiple urns were found. The state overturned the election result.
The courts can settle the Washington standout, just like in Madison County. Who knows if we’ll see a machine gun in front of the White House.
Ed Williams retired from The Charlotte Observer in 2008, after 25 years as editor of the editorial pages.