ODESSA — Two old ballot boxes — one wooden and the other metal — have sat on a shelf in Linda Martin’s Odessa home since the 1970s.
Her late father-in-law, H.O. Martin, a Hillsborough County deputy, saved the boxes from the county courthouse trash in the 1950s.
They were passed on to Martin and her husband, Charles, who has since died.
“They are a nice decoration,” Martin said.
They are also historic.
Martin recently opened the boxes for the first time.
The wooden one has ballots from 1906, placing the box from that year.
She now wants to donate the boxes to a museum. The Tampa Bay History Center is interested.
“They tell a story,” Martin said. “They tell us how far our elections have come.”
The Tampa Bay Times identified three such examples after meeting with Martin and seeing the boxes at the Austin Davis Public Library in Odessa.
The boxes and the ballots represent when Hillsborough’s boundaries extended to the other side of the bridge, when white supremacy was on the verge of denying Black residents the right to vote, and when elections were easily corruptible.
The metal barrel-shaped box, possibly from Ybor City, might have a direct link to an alleged crooked election.
“The hot districts were always Ybor and West Tampa,” Andy Huse, a librarian with the University of South Florida’s Special Collections Department, said. “You never know what could happen there.”
Twelve ballots are inside the rectangular wooden box. Listed races include Starke Eddings and A.C. Turner vying for the County Commission District 1 seat and J.L. Hackney and H.S. Hicks for District 5.
Inside is also a string looped through small pieces of initialed paper. It’s unclear for what it was used.
Three ballots are from Precinct 2 and nine from Precinct 12. The number 12 is also painted in black on the box, denoting to which precinct it belonged.
In 1906, Precinct 2 was in John’s Pass and Precinct 12 was in Little Manatee, according to news archives.
That was one of the last elections in which those areas were part of Hillsborough. Six years later, communities on the other side formed Pinellas County.
They did so because it felt like their Hillsborough votes did not count, Clearwater Historical Society president Allison Dolan said. “Government didn’t work for them. Nothing was getting done for them. There were no highways, so it took three days to get there, so they were often ignored.”
The year 1906 also hosted the second to last election before Jim Crow laws suppressed the Black vote in municipal polls.
The Florida Democratic Party became a whites-only party in 1902, but was losing Tampa mayoral elections. Republican William Frecker was elected in 1906 and independent Francis Wing in 1908.
Believing the Black vote was swinging the contests, the White Municipal Party was formed in 1910.
Party leaders ensured that all mayoral candidates registered as their candidates. Blacks were denied party membership.
Through at least 1931, the White Municipal Party was the only local party nominating mayoral candidates, according to “Colorless Primaries: Tampa’s White Municipal Party,” an article written by former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and published in Florida Historical Quarterly in 2001. That meant that the whites-only primaries were de facto elections.
Every Tampa mayor through 1947 was a member of the White Municipal Party.
And then there is the ease in which those ballot boxes could have been compromised.
“It must have been easy to fix elections when boxes with locks were all that were used for security,” Martin said.
Laughed Huse, “What security.”
Hillsborough elections back then, he said, were “dirty.”
In 1928, according to news archives, two masked gunmen stormed into a Hyde Park polling station and stole the ballot box.
There were voting scandals in 1906, but not in Precincts 2 or 12.
A Port Tampa ballot box was temporarily lost in the mail, according to news archives, and there were allegations of stuffing a box with fake ballots in Ybor.
In both instances, election officials promised there was nothing nefarious.
“You could never trust the final numbers,” Huse said. “People could place bets on who would win. That meant stakes were even higher.”
Beginning in 1937, new lever-operated voting machines were used in Hillsborough elections because they were more difficult to manipulate.
A year earlier, according to news archives, the old ballot box system went out on a low note with countywide accusations of improprieties, including four men charged with voting more than once in Precinct 14.
The location of Precinct 14 changed over the years. In 1906, news archives place it in Tarpon Springs. In the 1930s, according to news archives, Precinct 14 was in Ybor. Without ballots inside, the age of Martin’s barrel-shaped ballot box is unclear.
Without knowing the story of the 1936 election, Martin said her father-in-law touted the metal ballot box as dating to the 1930s.
Painted in white on its side is the number 14.