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.
Donald Trump wasn’t reelected because he screwed up the structural advantages Republicans have used (and have increasingly relied on) to win elections. As Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight points out, “rural white voters who are the core of [the Republican Party’s] base have far more power in the Electoral College and U.S. Senate than their raw numbers would imply, making their coalition electorally efficient.” And this electoral efficiency is how Republicans were able to win the presidency three times in the last six election cycles — even while losing the popular vote two of those three times. Or, to make things really clear, over the last twenty years, 66% of the time Republican presidents have governed the country they’ve done so without the mandate of the majority.
Think about this… President Trump’s reelection would have solidified the antidemocratic tendencies of the electoral college — creating a scenario whereby Republican presidents would have been the people’s choice for only 25% of the time they occupied the Oval Office since George W. Bush’s election in 2000.
Donald Trump lost because states like Georgia got in the way. Georgia is what happens when political parties — in this case the Republican Party — rely on voting schemes (e.g., the electoral college) to win elections. Rather than focusing their message to reach a broader cross section of the population, Republicans have doubled down on their core base of support — using, for example, “the structural advantages built into the system for rural voters.”
Joe Biden flipped Georgia because, since 2000, the state has seen increasing ethnic and racial diversity, a combination of urban and suburban growth in the Atlanta metro area, and a Republican Party that hasn’t adjusted its message accordingly. This isn’t a new story, though. In the early 1960s, Georgia’s government was dominated by a segregationist political class who — like the Republican Party of the present — used election schemes to win even though their governing platform was out of touch with large sections of the voting population.
Republicans should open their history books to see what Georgia’s county unit system says about what happens when a political party puts too many eggs in the “let’s game the system” basket.
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.
The system worked by assigning unit votes to each of Georgia’s 159 counties via a 3–2–1 formula — which meant that, according to a pamphlet from the League of Women Voters, if you lived in Atlanta in 1950, “a single voter in another county may have 106 times the voting power that you have.”¹
This manipulation of the franchise meant that rural Georgians largely determined who would hold state-level offices. As then Georgia Senator Herman E. Talmadge pointed out in a 1951 essay, “if it were not for the County Unit System, a candidate for governor of Georgia could come into Atlanta 75,000 votes ahead but see this lead completely erased.”² From the perspective of those like Senator Talmadge, the county unit system was a safeguard. It helped protect the state’s rural residents from having to listen to or be governed by Atlantans.
By skewing the vote away from Georgia’s cities, the county unit system created a series of 2016 electoral college-like victories. Just as Donald Trump won the presidency without the blessing of the majority, the county unit system ensured that many of Georgia’s Jim Crow era leaders obtained power without having to worry about the popular vote. An analysis in the pamphlet published by the League of Women Voters in 1950 revealed that:
The key trick in Georgia County Unit politics is to get a third man in the race, split the vote, and thus throw the unit vote to the candidate (frequently the minority candidate) who gets a plurality (the largest number) of votes in each county. In at least eleven instances within the past 20 years the County Unit system has brought victory to a candidate ranking second in popular votes.³
Because of how the county unit system allocated votes, Georgia’s plantation political class didn’t have to worry about Talmadge’s warning that they could see their outstate voting leads erased by Atlanta voters. And, as the League of Women Voters made clear, the result was often a leadership by plurality.
By 1961, this 3–2–1 formula continued to disfranchise voters in Georgia’s metro areas — with the eight most populous counties (half of which made up the Atlanta area) allocated six unit votes each, with the next thirty most populous counties allocated four unit votes each, and with the 121 least populous counties allocated two unit votes each. This meant the votes broke down as follows:
As you can see, the folks living in the 121 counties representing the most rural regions of the state could outvote (and often did outvote) those living in the other 38 counties — that’s even though these 38 counties contained 68% of the state’s overall population. Or, to put it another way, 32% of the population held 59% of the total unit votes.⁴ And, of course, Georgians paid a profound price for this manipulation.
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.”
As Senator Talmadge made clear:
We are firmly convinced that preservation of our heritage and traditions in the South depends to a large extent upon the vigilance and alertness of Georgia’s people and their governmental officials to the dangers which confront us — dangers which can be guarded against only so long as the County Unit System is in effect to guarantee that its leaders represent the heartbeats and thinking of all our people, not just regimented blocks.⁵
But, of course, Senator Talmadge’s use of “all our people” wasn’t inclusive — really, he was just talking about white Georgia. And the senator was pretty clear about how white Georgians could use the unit system to guard their place in society. As he continued:
In every county over the state, every white school boy and girl, and every other white person who will be over eighteen years of age by the time of the 1952 general election, should make sure that his or her name is on the registration list in his county. This may be our last chance to insure that Georgia will not be dominated by a gangster-ridden city political machine.⁶
This white supremacist politics played out in the county unit system by enabling demagogic governance. And the high cost Georgia paid included the continued marginalization of the state’s African Americans and the explicit (and knowing) violation of all citizens’ constitutional rights. For example, when Marvin Griffin was governor (1955–1959), the Georgia Commission on Education, with Griffin’s knowledge and permission, spied on everyday Georgians to try to root out those who might support school desegregation plans. According to historian Robert W. Dubay:
That organization’s executive secretary… was known to have acquired “a dreamy assortment of private-eye equipment” (pocket microphones, a camera with a telescopic lens, a telephone wiretap apparatus, etc.) which was utilized to conduct clandestine investigations of suspected integrationist plots.⁷
It’s important to note that Marvin Griffin won the 1954 Democratic primary with only 36% of the popular vote. But because of how the county unit system privileged rural voters, Griffin was able to take 302 of the 410 unit votes or 79% of the votes that mattered. As such, Griffin rode the racial prejudices of white, countryside Georgians straight into the governor’s mansion.
In this sense, the county unit system supported Georgia’s Old South social structure. According to political scientist William G. Cornelius, the county unit system continued to ensure that Georgia stayed segregated and under the control of white supremacy. As he pointed out in an analysis of the unit vote in The Western Political Quarterly in 1961, “by inhibiting the candidacy of potential leaders from the urban areas, [the county unit system] limits political leadership in the state to those who are acceptable to agrarian interests and who can stir rural prejudices” — which, in civil rights era Georgia, meant white anxiety about black advancement.⁸
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 writing was on the proverbial wall. Georgia’s political leaders were left with no choice but to confront the inequity of the county unit system. And even though they dismantled it before the September primary (replacing it with the popular vote), the U.S. Supreme Court put the issue to rest by deciding in favor of Mr. Sanders on March 18, 1963 (in Gray v. Sanders). In the court’s majority opinion, Justice William O. Douglas wrote that, “the concept of political equality… can only mean one thing — one person, one vote.”¹⁰ And, clearly, under the county unit system, some people’s votes counted more than other’s.
But the court’s dissenters didn’t see things quite the same way. Arguing that the decision “flies in the face of history,” Justice John Marshall Harlan II pointed out that “one person, one vote has never been the universally accepted political philosophy in England, the American colonies, or the United States.”¹¹ Fortunately for Georgians, Justice Harlan II lost that argument. His perspective, though, is enshrined in the nation’s constitution — and this is what brings us back to Donald Trump’s failed reelection bid and the status of the Republican Party.
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.
When the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, some members entertained selecting the president with a popular vote. Several southern delegates, however, balked at any such proposals. As Brooklyn Law School professor Wilfred Codrington III points out in The Atlantic:
Because of its considerable, nonvoting slave population, [the South] would have less clout under a popular-vote system. The ultimate solution was an indirect method of choosing the president, one that could leverage the three-fifths compromise… with about 93 percent of the country’s slaves toiling in just five southern states, that region was the undoubted beneficiary of the compromise, increasing the size of the South’s congressional delegation by 42 percent.
Through adopting the electoral college, slavery became a central factor in presidential politics. According to Yale University constitutional law professor Akhil Reed Amar:
After the 1800 census, Wilson’s [a Constitutional Convention delegate who promoted a popular vote system for electing the president] free state of Pennsylvania had 10% more free persons than Virginia, but got 20% fewer electoral votes. Perversely, the more slaves Virginia (or any other slave state) bought or bred, the more electoral votes it would receive. Were a slave state to free any blacks who then moved North, the state could actually lose electoral votes.
So, sure, small states have an interest in maintaining the electoral college. After all, the college system does provide North Dakota and Idaho outsized voices in selecting the president.
But given this history, it’s no wonder that, according to historian Joseph J. Eillis, some of the electoral college’s biggest defenders “have tended to speak with a Southern accent.” When Jim Crow era Georgians were looking for an election scheme that could marginalize the anti-segregation vote, they chose the county unit — modeled, not surprisingly, on the electoral college. And, as many in the state moderated their stance on or become more politically active for civil rights issues in the late-1950s, the county unit allowed the Democratic Party’s political elite to continue towing the segregationist line — all while providing cover for ignoring a more forward-looking segment of the white population and for a continuing dismissal of black voters. Only when the county unit system was abolished were these voices and these voters taken seriously in Democratic Party politics in Georgia.
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.”
Just like the Democratic Party in Georgia used the county unit system as cover for promoting segregationist policies and advancing white supremacy, the Republican Party uses its electoral college victories to advance an agenda that’s highly unpopular to the majority of the country (example here; another example here). That President-Elect Biden had to flip a few key states like Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania rather than simply just winning over the will of the people speaks to how a lack of equal voting power can provide justification for minoritarian politics.
A combination of population changes and the Republican Party’s refusal to broaden its message played to Joe Biden’s advantage in Georgia. But the story of the county unit system tells us where the Republican Party stands today and what they will likely do moving forward. And the moral of that story is this: as long as a political party can use the structural advantages built into voting schemes to win power without having to worry about reaching beyond a small portion of the population, they will continue to do so.
¹ Georgia Voter, Vol. XXII, Num. 4, October 1950, “The County Unit and Other Amendments.” MSS 394 League of Women Voters of Voters of Atlanta-Fulton County, Box 11, Folder 3 (Publications and Printed Material, “Georgia Voter”, 1936–1972), Kenan Research Center, Atlanta History Center, Atlanta, GA.
² Herman E. Talmadge, “Georgia’s County Unit System, Fountainhead of Democracy,” The Georgia Review 5, no. 4 (1951): 421.
³ Georgia Voter, Vol. XXII, Num. 4, October 1950, “The County Unit and Other Amendments.” MSS 394 League of Women Voters of Voters of Atlanta-Fulton County, Box 11, Folder 3 (Publications and Printed Material, “Georgia Voter”, 1936–1972), Kenan Research Center, Atlanta History Center, Atlanta, GA.
⁴ William G. Cornelius, “The County Unit System of Georgia: Facts and Prospects,” The Western Political Quarterly 14, no. 4 (1961): 948.
⁵ Herman E. Talmadge, “Georgia’s County Unit System, Fountainhead of Democracy,” The Georgia Review 5, no. 4 (1951): 421.
⁶ Ibid, 421.
⁷ Robert W. Dubay, “Marvin Griffin and the Politics of the Stump,” in Georgia Governors in an Age of Change: From Ellis Arnall to George Busbee, eds. Harold P. Henderson & Gary L. Roberts (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1988): 111.
⁸ William G. Cornelius, “The County Unit System of Georgia: Facts and Prospects,” The Western Political Quarterly 14, no. 4 (1961): 948.
⁹ Achsah Posey, “U.S. Court Asked to End Unit System in Georgia,” The Atlanta Constitution, 27 March, 1962.
¹⁰ Ted Lippman, “Unit Setup Illegal, High Court Rules,” The Atlanta Constitution, 19 March, 1963.
¹¹ Ted Lippman, “Unit Setup Illegal, High Court Rules,” The Atlanta Constitution, 19 March, 1963.