Around the world, write-in candidacies are generally viewed as an American tradition. With a few exceptions – such as the famous and bizarre case of a foot powder winning a mayoral election in Ecuador in 1967 – the United States has pioneered the practice of recognizing votes for write-in candidates, even those for fictional characters like the ever-popular Donald Duck. No fewer than eleven members of Congress – three U.S. Senators and eight U.S. Representatives, including current Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack of Iowa – have won initial election or reelection due to write-in efforts.
One of the most significant write-in candidacies in Georgia history was that by supporters of Ellis Arnall in the gubernatorial campaign of 1966 (featured in our last blog post). Arnall, decidedly the most liberal candidate, had served as Governor during World War II, and during his governorship had lowered Georgia’s voting age to 18 (the first state to do so), paid off the state’s debts, and reformed the state’s higher education system to restore accreditation to Georgia colleges. He had also gained a racially progressive reputation after repealing the poll tax and refusing to defy a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against all-white party primaries.
In his ’66 race, fully 20 years after his leaving office, Arnall placed first in the initial all-candidate Democratic field with 29.4% to segregationist Lester Maddox’s 23.6%, but then lost the Democratic nomination in a runoff election to Maddox by a vote of 54.3% to 45.7%. With the general election offering a choice between one conservative (Maddox) and another (Republican Bo Callaway), Democrats like the Rev. John Morris – founder of that year’s “Write In, Georgia” committee – whose pro-Great Society and civil rights priorities better aligned with those of the national party and the Johnson White House pushed Arnall as an alternative. When Morris notified Arnall in writing of his and others’ intention to pursue a write-in option, Arnall responded with less-than-subtle encouragement.
In the end, 69,025 voters wrote Arnall’s name on their ballots, fully 7.1% of the vote and enough to deny both Maddox and Callaway an overall majority (Callaway took 46.5%, Maddox 46.2%). As the General Assembly was empowered to select governors in the case of no candidate receiving 50%, Democratic legislators chose their party’s nominee in Maddox, and Arnall returned to his Atlanta law firm, Arnall Golden & Gregory, never to seek public office again.
Arnall’s write-in candidacy is well documented in John B. Morris Collection, as well as the Harold Paulk Henderson Oral History Collection. The Morris collection contains correspondence, newspaper articles, newsletters, pamphlets, memoranda that document the 1966 Georgia Write-In Movement, including letters between Morris and Arnall (who could not officially show support for the movement because he signed a pledge to support the choice of the Democratic Primary). The collection also documents Morris’s split from the Democratic Party following the write-in campaign, and the formation of the Georgia Democratic Party Forum.
The Harold Paulk Henderson Oral History Collection consists of interviews conducted by Henderson during his research for a biography of Ellis Arnall. Series I contains interviews that explore the 1966 gubernatorial election and the life of Arnall.