What Georgia’s County Unit System Tells Us About the Electoral College and Republican Party

Donald Trump was never going to win the popular vote. Heading into November, my nightmare scenario was that President Trump would lose by more votes and by a bigger margin than he lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016. The nightmare part, and what I really worried about, was that he would still win the presidency by taking the electoral college. But, thankfully, that didn’t happen.

Georgia’s county unit system

From 1917 to 1962, Georgia used an electoral college-like voting system to disfranchise voters — mostly those from metropolitan areas, especially Atlanta. The county unit system, as it was called, was instituted by the Neill Primary Act of 1917 to determine which candidate would win the Democratic Party’s primary for statewide office. And because Georgia was a one-party state at the time, the county unit system ultimately decided who got to govern.

From the League of Women Voters of Atlanta-Fulton County collection housed in the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center, Atlanta, GA

County units and the maintenance of white supremacist politics

The county unit system was the product as well as the guardian of Georgia’s white supremacist politics. By giving rural voters outsized power in state elections, the unit system “served to protect such policies as legal segregation and other aspects of white supremacy by diluting the influence of more liberal urban voters and of Black voters, who were concentrated in Georgia’s cities.”

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Senate Historical Office

One person, one vote

Georgia’s county unit system was a violation of a core principle of democracy: the principle of equal voting power. So, in early 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Baker v. Carr that questions surrounding political representation in state legislatures were justiciable, James O’Hear Sanders, a resident of Fulton County and the chairman of an organization called Active Voters, filed an injunction with a federal court asking that the court put an end to the unit vote. As The Atlanta Constitution reported on March 27, 1962: “the great barrier to change of the unit system in the past, according to opponents of the system, has been the unwillingness of the Supreme Court to accept jurisdiction.”⁹ But the high court’s decision in the Baker case warranted a path forward.

The electoral college today

The electoral college does today what Georgia’s county unit system did during the first half of the twentieth century. The popular trope about the electoral college is that it makes sure the folks who live in states like North Dakota or Idaho aren’t forgotten about in presidential politics. But just like Georgia’s county unit system, the geographic protection the electoral college provides to small states and rural populations runs up against the historical legacy of white supremacy that’s written into the U.S. Constitution.

The status of the Republican Party

The county unit playbook that the Democratic Party used in Georgia from 1917–1962 is the same playbook the Republican Party is using today. Like how the Democratic Party used the county unit system to prop up its segregationist platform, the electoral college allows Republicans to adopt a minoritarian populist politics predicated on a small sliver of the electorate that’s largely rural and overwhelmingly white. In 2016, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis by Nate Silver, Republicans played to this narrow slice of the population by using their “structural advantages (especially in the Senate), and Trump’s ability to drive turnout in places where those structural advantages matter.”

STL | PhD | Assistant Professor | Historian & Educationalist | Social Studies(ing) all the things | Writing while drinking dark roast coffee and smooth bourbon.

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