Thursday, September 22, 2016

To Write (In) the Wrong

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.
Around the world, write-in candidates 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. 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.

Left: Letter from Ellis Arnall to Rev. John Morris, 1966. Alvan S. Arnall Collection of Ellis Arnall Materials.

In his 1966 race, a full 20 years after his leaving office, Arnall placed first in the initial all-candidate Democratic election with 29.4% followed by segregationist Lester Maddox  with 23.6%. Arnall ultimately 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 Great Society and civil rights priorities better aligned with  the national party and the Johnson White House pushed Arnall as an alternative. When Morris notified Arnall in writing of his 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 case no candidate receives a 50% majority, Democratic legislators chose Maddox as their nominee. 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 that contains correspondence, newspaper articles, newsletters and pamphlets documenting 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 write-in is also documented in the Harold Paulk Henderson Oral History Collection. This collection consists of interviews conducted by retired political science professor Hal 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.

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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