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Sunday, August 23, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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9 Is Still A Mystery -- Ballot Box Is Symbol Of Controversy Over Lbj Election Result

The Dallas Morning News

ALICE, Texas - It was an innocent request.

"We're looking for the old Box 13," Jim Wells County, Texas, Judge Arnoldo Saenz told a handful of assistants in the cluttered county clerk's office.

"Oh no, not Ballot Box 13 again!" moaned one of the deputy clerks.

People have been grumbling about that tiny tin ballot box for 50 years, a symbol of Texas' most famous - some say infamous - political scandal:

The contested 1948 Democratic primary runoff for the Senate in which Lyndon Johnson is accused of stealing the election by massive fraud when supporters stuffed Box 13 for him in Jim Wells County.

That lone precinct in the dusty South Texas town of Alice provided LBJ with an 87-vote victory. It earned him the nickname "Landslide Lyndon" and sent him to the Senate (after a November victory over a Republican) and a position of power that eventually put him in the White House.

A half-century after that bitterly fought August primary, the whereabouts of the box remain a mystery. And Johnson admirers have announced no plans to celebrate that momentous political triumph.

"Unfortunately, it's one of those anniversary things that the focus will be on the alleged shenanigans. The focus will be on those 87 votes. It's hard to get away from that," said former LBJ top aide George Christian.

If any South Texans know the location of the box, or even whether it stills exists, they aren't talking.

As he recently searched the courthouse for the missing box, Saenz rejected criticisms about Johnson and Jim Wells County's role in that nationally watched 1948 Senate primary campaign.

Saenz turned up about 40 rusting ballot boxes, including one with the numeral 13 written on it. But those boxes were rectangular. The original Box 13 was round.

"I may be prejudiced, but LBJ was one of my heroes," he told a reporter, who had asked him to poke around for the real Box 13. And besides, Saenz said, bogus voting could have been found all over Texas in that 1948 election.

"They were stuffing boxes here while they were stuffing boxes in East Texas, too. Right?

"It just so happened this was the place that got singled out," the judge said.

Historians said there are good reasons Box 13 became so notorious.

The amended vote tally from Box 13 was reported to state election officials several days after the Aug. 28, 1948, runoff.

The "corrected" total gave Johnson an additional 202 votes and only one extra vote for his opponent, Coke Stevenson, a former governor who was nicknamed "Calculatin' Coke."

The new numbers from Jim Wells County erased Stevenson's apparent win, giving Johnson his 87-vote margin of victory.

The amended votes were cast in alphabetical order. The signatures on the ballots were all in the same handwriting and with the same pen. And many of those shown casting ballots were ineligible to vote, were out of the county on Election Day or were dead.

Stevenson vigorously contested the final results in which he was edged by LBJ 494,191 to 494,104. Stevenson even persuaded famed Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, who was involved in the shootout that resulted in the deaths of feared criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, to investigate allegations that the election was stolen.

But his legal actions failed, and Johnson went on to easily defeat Republican Jack Porter in the general election for the Senate.

LBJ's opponents attributed the alleged ballot-box stuffing in Jim Wells and surrounding counties to the "Duke of Duval."

The late George B. Parr - often dubbed the "emperor of South Texas" and widely considered the last of the state's major political bosses - controlled elections for years in more than a dozen counties.

Because Parr, a banker, rancher and oilman, was from nearby Duval County and a Johnson supporter, the Box 13 episode often is confused as occurring there rather than the adjoining Jim Wells County.

"I take all the glory of LBJ and electing a president, but Box 13 is a Jim Wells site," said Duval County Sheriff Santiago Barrera Jr., chuckling.

The sheriff and several other local officials said that although Parr might not have been perfect, he did help area residents, especially those who supported his hand-picked candidates on Election Day.

"It's been claimed he stole here and there," Barrera said. "But he helped people here and in all the surrounding counties. He was the main man."

Seven years ago, Duval County officials decided to pay tribute to Parr, who committed suicide in 1975 to avoid going to prison for income-tax evasion. They opened a George Parr Room on the second floor of the county's musty museum. The star attraction of the room was to have been Ballot Box 13.

It was never displayed.

Duval County Historical Commission chairwoman Lydia Canales said she was told that "a certain person had that ballot box.

"So we inquired to see if they would either give it to the museum or put it on loan. But they denied all knowledge of having the box," said Canales, who said the Parr Room now has been "partially dismantled."

"I guess they just didn't want to give it up. I don't know the truth. I can't say they did have the box or they didn't have it," she said, declining to name names.

Other locals have said the box is being hidden by private citizens in Alice or Benavides or Premont, Texas. They also refuse to provide names.

Still other area officials said the box might have been sold at a sheriff's auction in Jim Wells County a couple of years ago. Yet another former county official, who did not want to be identified, said last week that the box was thrown into the Rio Grande years ago.

State Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Benavides, who represents both Duval and Jim Wells counties, doubts that.

"I can't imagine someone would have done that," he said. "Someone has to have it. I just don't know who."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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