County Unit System
Though the County Unit System had informally been used since 1898, it was formally enacted by the Neill Primary Act of 1917. The system was ostensibly designed to function similarly to the Electoral College, but in practice the large ratio of unit votes for small, rural counties to unit votes for more populous urban areas provided outsized political influence to the smaller counties.
For most of the period this system was in effect, the Democratic Party was the single dominant party in state politics. Democratic nominees frequently ran unopposed or with only token opposition in general elections, so the Democratic primary election usually determined the eventual officeholder.
Under the County Unit System, the 159 counties in Georgia were divided by population into three categories. The largest eight counties were classified as "Urban," the next-largest 30 counties were classified as "Town," and the remaining 121 counties were classified as "Rural." Urban counties were given 6 unit votes, Town counties were given 4 unit votes, and Rural counties were given 2 unit votes, for a total of 410 available unit votes. Each county's unit votes were awarded on a winner-take-all basis.
Candidates were required to obtain a majority of unit votes (not necessarily a majority of the popular vote), or 206 total unit votes, to win the election. If no candidate received a majority in the initial primary, a runoff election was held between the top two candidates to determine a winner.
The County Unit System generated great controversy due to the fact that it gave the votes of counties with smaller populations a significantly greater weight than counties with larger populations. For at least the final two decades the system was in use, a majority of statewide unit votes were controlled by counties that, collectively, had less than one-third of the state's total population. Because of this, statewide candidates for office could (and frequently did) win the primary by winning the county unit vote while losing the overall popular vote, sometimes by large margins. This also gave rise to kingmakers such as Roy V. Harris, who were known for their ability to deliver the unit votes of many rural counties.
One of the most controversial elections of the County Unit System era was the 1946 Democratic gubernatorial primary. By winning a large number of rural counties, Eugene Talmadge garnered a nearly 60% majority of the statewide county unit votes and won the primary, even though he lost the popular vote by 16,144 votes to James V. Carmichael, who himself only won a plurality, not a majority, of the popular vote.
|1946 Georgia Democratic Gubernatorial Primary
(County Unit Votes in parentheses)
|Democratic||James V. Carmichael||313,389
Legal Challenges and Overturning
Several lawsuits were filed in the 1940s and 1950s challenging the constitutionality of the system. These lawsuits were rejected by the Supreme Court on the grounds that apportionment issues should be handled by individual states. In 1962, however, the Supreme Court reversed its opinion, ruling in the Tennessee case of Baker v. Carr that redistricting issues present justiciable questions, thus enabling federal courts to intervene in and to decide reapportionment cases.
Following the 1962 Baker v. Carr decision, James Sanders, a voter in Fulton County, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Northern Georgia which challenged the legality of the County Unit System. James H. Gray, the chairman of the State Executive Committee of the Democratic Party, was one of the defendants named in the suit. Judge Griffin Bell ruled in Sanders' favor, issuing an injunction against using the system just months before the 1962 gubernatorial primary.
Gray appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which on March 8, 1963, rendered a decision by a vote of 8-1 declaring the County Unit System unconstitutional in its current form. In the majority opinion, Justice William O. Douglas wrote, "The concept of political equality...can mean only one thing—one person, one vote." The Gray v. Sanders case was the first One Person, One Vote decision handed down by the Supreme Court.
Due to the court's injunction of the County Unit System in 1962, that year's Democratic gubernatorial primary was the first to be decided by raw numbers since 1908. It was won by Carl Sanders, would go on to win unopposed in the general election in November. Sanders was the first person from an urban county to be elected governor since the 1920s.
|1962 Georgia Democratic Gubernatorial Primary|
|Democratic||Carl E. Sanders||494,978||58.07%|
|Democratic||Former Gov. Marvin Griffin||332,746||39.04%|
|Democratic||Grace Wilkey Thomas||12,579||1.48%|
|Democratic||Cecil L. Langham||3,319||0.39%|
Following the 1963 Gray v. Sanders decision, the Georgia Legislature had the option to redesign the County Unit System to meet the new "One Person, One Vote" standard. The legislature chose, instead, to continue electing statewide offices by popular vote, which continues to the present day. The newly elected Governor Sanders also spearheaded a massive reapportionment of Georgia's General Assembly and 10 U.S. Congressional districts, providing more proportional representation to the state's urban areas.
- "County Unit System". Georgia County Clerks Association. Retrieved 12 August 2013.
- "Eugene Talmadge". The Jim Crow Encyclopedia. The African American Experience. Retrieved 12 August 2013.
- "County Unit System, eh?". Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies. October 6, 2011. Retrieved 12 August 2013.
- Buchanan, Scott (April 15, 2005). "County Unit System". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12 August 2013.
- Cook, Earl Pope (1946). "Earl P. Cook Collection of County Unit System Materials". Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies. Retrieved 12 August 2013.
- Huff, Christopher Allen (June 28, 2007). "Roy V. Harris". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12 August 2013.
- State of Georgia. "Consolidated Vote, State Democratic Primary, July 17, 1946". Georgia's Official Register, 1945-1950. p. 486. Retrieved August 17, 2013.
- "Baker v. Carr decision". Findlaw. March 26, 1962. Retrieved 12 August 2013.
- "Gray v. Sanders decision". FindLaw. March 8, 1963. Retrieved 12 August 2013.
- J. Harmon Smith. "History of Georgia's County Unit System". written at Atlanta, Georgia. In Virginia W. Atwell. Georgia's Official Register, 1961-1962. Hapeville, Georgia: Longino & Porter. pp. 943–944. Retrieved August 17, 2013.
- Cook, James F. (September 12, 2002). "Carl Sanders". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12 August 2013.
- State of Georgia. "Consolidated Vote, State Democratic Primary, Held September 12, 1962". written at Atlanta, Georgia. In Virginia W. Atwell. Georgia's Official Register, 1961-1962. Hapeville, Georgia: Longino & Porter. p. 1436. Retrieved August 17, 2013.