Thursday, September 15, 2016

County Unit, what?

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 several of our recent "political slang" posts we have referred to the County Unit System that operated in Georgia until the 1960s. But, what is the county unit system? A bit more explanation on that system and its impact on Georgia's politics...

Formalized by the Neill Primary Act in 1917, the county-unit system had operated informally in Georgia since 1898 as the method for primary election of statewide office holders. Employing an Electoral College style, the system bolstered the influence of small, rural counties at the expense of more populous urban areas.

Left: Roy V. Harris, a longtime "kingmaker" was a master of the white-only, rural-dominated state politics held up by the County Unit System. A popular saying among Georgians in the 1940s: "What do you need to be elected Governor of Georgia? $50,000 and Roy Harris." Photograph from Ed Friend Visual Materials Collection , Russell Library. 

Each of the 159 counties in the state was classified as urban, town, or rural. Urban counties received six votes each, town counties four, and rural counties two, with a winner-take-all system for the candidate victorious by popular vote within the county. With 410 votes up for grabs statewide, a candidate needed 206 to claim the nomination. The disproportionate distribution of unit votes to population size encouraged heavy campaigning in the 121 rural counties.

Citizens launched unsuccessful constitutional challenges to the system in the 1940s and 1950s, but the courts were reluctant to review apportionment within states. In Baker v. Carr (1962), the Supreme Court established the famous standard “one person, one vote” meaning legislators need to essentially represent the same amount of people. The Tennessee state constitution requires legislative districts be redrawn ever ten years according to the federal census but Tennessee had not redrawn district maps since 1901. In 1960, 2/3 of Tennessee’s representatives were elected by only 1/3 of the state’s population. Amidst pressure from the Civil Rights Movement, the justices upheld the 14th Amendments equal protection under law. State officials were forced to redraw district maps, but they still manipulated boundaries to mitigate the effect of minority voters.

A similar case in Georgia, Gray v. Sanders (1962), pushed the U.S. District Court for Northern Georgia to issue an injunction against the system just months before the gubernatorial primary. As a result Carl Sanders, a more liberal urban candidate, became governor in the first statewide popular vote in nearly fifty years, beating out Marvin Griffin.

Above Right: Schedule for redistricting based on 1990 census. C. Donald (Don) Johnson Papers, Russell Library. 

Traces of the county unit system can be found in many of the collections at the Russell Library. A quick keyword search of the collections database results in several hits, many of which touch on public efforts to get rid of the system in the early 1950s.

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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