Thursday, August 11, 2016

Lame Duck

In anticipation of the November 2016 presidential election, the Russell Library’s Access and Outreach staff has been working on an exhibit, On the Stump: What Does it Take to Get Elected in Georgia? opening September 2nd in the Harrison Feature Gallery. The exhibit considers the evolution of campaigning for state office and asks visitors to imagine life on the campaign trail. This post is one in a series exploring political slang and its role in elections. 

In political parlance, a lame duck is an elected official nearing the end of his or her tenure in office, especially one whose successor has been elected but not yet sworn in. Pundits often see lame ducks as holding less influence over their colleagues than those officials who will return in the following term. Yet lame ducks are often known to enact contentious policies at the proverbial eleventh hour, leaving partisan “parting shots” or “midnight regulations” for their successors to either accept or confront. Before 1976, the Georgia Constitution limited governors to a single four-year term (though governors were allowed to seek the office again after sitting out one four-year term). Essentially, then, Georgia governors were lame ducks upon their election. Today, only Virginia denies its governors the possibility of consecutive re-election.

Below: Booklet on governor's controversy published by Atlanta Journal, 1947.
 Georgia Ephemera Collection, Russell Library. 

In Georgia, lame duck status conspired with a suspect gubernatorial election in late 1946 and early 1947 to produce the so-called Three Governors Controversy.  Voters elected Eugene Talmadge, a conservative 62-year-old former governor, to succeed Gov. Ellis Arnall, a liberal up-and-comer. While Governor Arnall repealed the poll tax and uphold the Supreme Court decision ending the all-white party primary, Talmadge (as Governor from 1933 to 1937) vehemently opposed New Deal legislation he perceived as favorable to African Americans. 

Left: James V. Carmichael platform, 1946 gubernatorial campaign. Helen M. Lewis Collection of James V. Carmichael Campaign Material, Russell Library

In the Democratic primary, Talmadge defeated Jimmie Carmichael—a favor among young voters and the candidate Arnall endorsed—despite losing the popular vote to Carmichael by 16,144 votes or about 2.33% of the vote. Carmichael’s loss came at the hands of the state’s “county unit vote” system that favored candidates who controlled rural counties. However, Talmadge’s inner circle knew he was in poor health and feared he might not live to be sworn into office. Capitalizing on a loophole in the state constitution empowering the General Assembly to appoint a new governor from runner-up candidates in the event of the governor-elect’s death, the Talmadge machine quietly ran Eugene’s son Herman as a write-in candidate in the general election. With no Republican on the ballot, and fortuitous discovery of additional write-in votes from his home county, the younger Talmadge placed second with just 675 or .46% of the votes. Eugene Talmadge died on December 21, 1946.

Effective the 1946 election, the new state constitution established the office of lieutenant governor. The The “Anti-Talmadge” candidate Melvin Ernest (M. E.) Thompson had been elected to that office in November, and upon the elder Talmadge’s death, laid claim to the governorship. 

Above Right: M.E. Thompson for governor brochure, 1947. M.E. Thompson Papers, Russell Library.

On January 15, 1947, a General Assembly dominated by Talmadge-affiliated “Dixiecrats” voted to declare Herman Talmadge the next Governor. Thompson sued. Meanwhile, “lame duck” Governor Arnall refused to leave office until a successor had been” legitimately” chosen. 

Above: Herman Talmadge (center) being sworn in as Governor of Georgia, January 1947.
 Herman E. Talmadge Collection, Russell Library. 

Some two months later, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in favor of Thompson but called for a special election to fill the remainder of the late Governor-elect Eugene Talmadge’s term (due to expire in 1951). Herman Talmadge easily defeated Thompson in that special election, held in September 1948, and did the same two years later for a full term as governor; then again in 1956 for a U.S. Senate seat that Talmadge would hold for 24 years. 

Want to find out more? Visit On the Stump on display in the Harrison Feature Gallery in the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries  from September 2, 2016 through August 18, 2017. The Russell Library gallery is free and open to the public weekdays from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 1-5 p.m. For more information, email or call 706-542-5788.

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