By Joan C. Browning (December 12, 2000)
My first vote for a presidential candidate was counted. The FBI observers watching over my polling place assured it, though eighteen of Telfair County, Georgia’s election officials were indicted in Federal District Court. They were charged with election fraud, vote fraud, conspiring against the rights of citizens and casting and counting or causing to be cast and counted fictitious or illegal votes. Four of them were convicted.
1960 presidential election
I was eighteen when, on November 8, 1960, Mother took me to vote at the Towns precinct, Telfair County, Georgia. Back then, Georgians were the only eighteen year olds allowed to vote in America.
We walked down a sandy dirt lane past gaggles of white men bunched around pickup trucks and, standing apart, a pair of stone-faced white men wearing dark suits and narrow neckties. The Towns polling place was a tiny decrepit wooden former one-room school building. A tree limb had grown through the room, coming in one window and exiting the other. We had to duck under it on our way to the table at the front of the room.
The heavy-jowled scowling white male election officials seated at the table handed each of us a paper ballot. They watched us mark our ballots. Then we then handed the voted ballots back to them. Telfair County did not believe in secret ballots.
John Kennedy became president in that 1960 election by slim and disputed vote totals. Some say that the change of one vote per polling place in Illinois would have given the Electoral College votes to Nixon instead of Kennedy.
Georgia was a still one-party (Democratic) state so Telfair County would not play a part in that presidential election. The Towns precinct usually reported a unanimous one hundred percent Democratic tally.
It didn’t matter whether I preferred Kennedy or Nixon. Mother and I had agreed to trade our right to vote for the candidate of our choice for using our votes to test whether the Courthouse Crowd actually counted our ballots. We voted for the Republican, Richard M. Nixon.
Our votes were counted. The Courthouse Crowd certified the Towns precinct tally as Kennedy, 59, Nixon, 7.
Mother was part of the New Crowd, a group organized by white World War II veterans and other disenfranchised whites to wrest control from the Talmadge Courthouse Crowd that had ruled imperiously since the 1930s. Dr. Duncan B. McRae, our family physician, and scion of one of the oldest white families in the county, led the New Crowd. They wanted fair elections, including the secret ballot.
The New Crowd had convinced the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to observe Telfair County voting that year. Two years later, the New Crowd published advertisements of the Georgia Code requiring the secret ballot and promising "…the Telfair County election will be observed by the F.B.I. on election day. If there are any irregularities or complaints during the election, the F.B.I. will be nearby to take appropriate action." By 1962, the county sheriff joined the New Crowd in calling for outside law enforcement assistance on election day.
Telfair County needed outside intervention in its elections. Reporters regularly won journalism awards for exposing Telfair County corruption of all kinds, but especially election fraud. The 1946 General Election was one of the most blatant.
1946 General Election
One issue dominated the 1946 Georgia governor’s race – a crude racist appeal for the restoration of the White Primary that the United States Supreme Court had just declared unconstitutional. The White Primary barred African-American Georgians from voting in the Democratic Party primary. Since Georgia was a one-party state, election in the Democratic primary was "tantamount" to being elected. The General Election merely ratified the primary results.
Voting was limited to about 20 percent of the state’s adults. The White Primary made sure that African-American votes played no role in the "tantamount" primary election. Georgia also kept white voters out of the system. Whites trying to register to vote faced illogical literacy tests. Potential voters could be asked questions such as "How many drops of water are in this glass?" Once registered, a voter’s name could be randomly purged, requiring re-registration.
Today’s Electoral College discussion reminds me that Georgia also disenfranchised urban voters by using a form of the Electoral College called the "county unit" system. The county unit system of weighing votes meant that it took more than a hundred Fulton County (Atlanta) votes to equal each Telfair County vote.
James Carmichael and my Telfair County neighbor, Eugene "Gene" Talmadge, contended for the Democratic party’s nomination for governor in 1946. Gene, "The Wild Man of Sugar Creek," was financed by the keep-taxes-and-government-services-low corporations – the railroads, Coca Cola, Georgia Power Company. He campaigned on the single issue of keeping African-Americans disenfranchised.
Carmichael received more popular votes statewide than Eugene Talmadge, but under the "county unit" system, Talmadge won the Democratic primary anyway.
In the General Election that fall, the Talmadge Telfair County Courthouse Crowd certified a consolidated county return showing 1,788 voters. Although Gene Talmadge was the only name printed on ballot for governor, 77 of the 1,788 ballots were tallied as write-in votes for his son, Herman Talmadge for governor. In addition to the official countywide voter turnout of 1,788, though, an extra 48 write-in votes were counted for Herman for governor. The 48 extras came from Helena precinct, where those 48 voters "over voted" for both Talmadges for governor. Both votes were certified.
Atlanta Journal reporter George Goodwin found that the last 34 of Helena precinct’s 103 voters had voted in alphabetical order, beginning at the letter A and continuing through the letter K.
Goodwin couldn’t locate fourteen of those 34 voters. The twenty he did find denied having voted at all.
Six of them had lived in Telfair County but had moved away more than two years before the election. Two were dead, one for four years, one for seven years. A Marine had been out of the county more than a year. One was reported to be a fictitious person.
Of the real Telfair County residents Goodwin found, one said he did not vote, and he did not have a wife although his wife was listed as voting. The wife in another couple said, "We never voted for nobody," and that she had never voted in her life and as far as she knew, she had never been registered to vote.
One name was listed twice. Another said that he had once been erroneously registered under the name on the list and that he had corrected his registration, but "neither me nor my wife voted in the general election," he said. "I remember it was raining that day and the windshield wiper on my car was broken, and neither of us went to the polls."
When the Courthouse Crowd certified the county election returns, they added votes: Cobbville precinct listed 86 persons on the voter list, but reported 186 votes; in Jacksonville, 27 became 127; Temperance’s 24, certified as 124; Milan’s 242 was crudely erased and "4" had written over the "2", making Milan’s certified total 442. Telfair County certified 600 "phantom" votes.
Under the county unit system, it would take more than 65,000 Atlanta votes to merely equal the fraudulent votes in Telfair County.
(Telfair County was not unusual. Augusta’s kingmaker Roy Harris boasted that he could change the election returns of more than thirty of Georgia’s 159 counties after the polls had closed.)
Gene Talmadge was declared the elected governor in 1946 but died of cirrhosis of the liver before being sworn in. The "three governor" ruckus ensued. That handful of Helena precinct phantom votes decided the "winner" of the governor’s race.
When the legislature met to choose a governor from the two persons receiving the most write in votes, historian Numan V. Bartley wrote that "669 diehard anti-Talmadge voters had written in Carmichael’s name; 637 Republicans had written in D. Talmadge Bowers, the nominal Republican candidate; and [Herman] Talmadge had only 519 votes, apparently eliminating him from consideration. Fortuitously, the Talmadge managers "found" an additional 56 ballots for Talmadge from the family’s home county of Telfair. … The majority of those 56 voters had the same handwriting and some resided in graveyards … but from the perspective of county unit politics, Herman Talmadge now had 675 votes and thus was the leader among the write-in candidates. The legislature promptly elected him governor."
Herman and his drunken, pistol-wielding supporters commandeered the Governor’s office. He declared martial law and began ransacking the state. He and the legislature were busy restoring the White Primary when, after sixty days, the courts tossed this "pretender" out of the Georgia governor’s office.
Herman Talmadge later acknowledged that the Helena precinct vote was fraudulent. He said that he had passed the word to his friend Stanley Brooks at Helena to get him a few write in votes for governor. Talmadge said, "George Goodwin of the Journal went down and checked the votes in Helena, and found that they had voted in alphabetical order. Stanley Brooks could have had them vote in any order he wanted to, alphabetical or otherwise, in the Helena precinct. Stanley figured that it was just too much trouble to pass the word, I’ll just fix it here."
2000 presidential election
The philosophy of "one citizen, one vote," where the votes of a president and a pauper carry the same weight, still struggles against the antidemocratic forces that favor the easily miscounted votes of the few.
The current presidential election reminds me of that 1946 Georgia governor’s race. Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Florida votes are not included in the "certified" election return. The certified winner’s vote lead shrinks to less than two hundred votes, if all the votes now counted are included. We are told that votes counts are seldom accurate anywhere in America. The Electoral College is valuing some votes more than others, much the same way as Georgia’s old county unit system.
Even the issues are strikingly similar. George Bush is not nearly as entertaining an orator as Ole Gene, but his message, cleaned up a little, is much the same: low taxes, furl the social safety net, pander to a few of the very rich. Like Ole Gene, he rouses the masses through emotional appeals, replacing Gene’s white supremacist rantings with tirades against women’s control of their bodies, teachers, and all those "others" impatient for their full rights as Americans.
To keep his promises, though, he must be sure that his brother’s chosen election officials, and perhaps its legislature, prevent the counting of some of Florida’s votes. Stanley Brooks, where are you now that George needs you?
Bush delegates some of the worst ranting to his subalterns. When I turn off the television sound, his heavy-jowled angry white men could have been seated at Towns precinct in 1960.
The expansion of the right to vote did not come easy. People I know braved terror, intimidation, brutality, economic sanctions, and all the antidemocratic arsenal in order to expand the right to vote. Some were murdered for wanting to vote.
The kinds of citizens barred from the voting booth in the Telfair County, Georgia, of my youth – African-Americans, the New Crowd, women, the poor – turned out in Florida in record numbers. Now, the antidemocratic gang is trying to elevate another "pretender" to the Oval Office by refusing to count their votes.
America tried to repent of its sin of African slavery by fighting a bloody war to free slaves. It sold out those newly freed African-Americans in the 1876 election, when southern white supremacists traded Electoral College votes to Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for total control of African-Americans and their white allies. It took three quarters of a century more of freedom struggle to bring forth the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s.
If the voting rights gained in the Second Reconstruction are negated in this election, who has enough faith in American democracy to create the Third Reconstruction?
Joan C. Browning is a writer and lecturer who has made her home in West Virginia. She was a 1961 Freedom Rider. Autobiographical information is available in the chapter, "Shiloh Witness," in Constance Curry, Joan C. Browning, et. al., Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement (University of Georgia Press, 2000); in the article, Joan C. Browning, "Invisible Revolutionaries: White Women in Civil Rights Movement Historiography," Journal of Women’s History, Fall 1996; and on her web site.
© 2000 all rights reserved, Joan C. Browning