Georgia’s three governors debacle, a lesson for today’s elections
While it remains to be seen whether these theorized outcomes could come to fruition, contesting election results through the proper means is not particularly worrisome. After all, America has a history of recounts and election-related lawsuits. However, it could become a problem if candidates fail to respect the constitutional forms that would settle any such disputes and/or if either party abandons America’s celebrated peaceful transfer of power.
Interestingly, the notion of a chaotic, contested election hearkens back to a largely forgotten chapter in Georgia’s history, and it can provide lessons in advance of November 3.
In 1946, Eugene Talmadge ran for governor and won the Democratic primary. Given that the Republicans failed to produce a gubernatorial candidate, this virtually ensured that Talmadge would become Georgia’s next governor. Yet events took an unfortunate turn when he died of a liver ailment after the general election but before his inauguration.
Numerous parties were unsure over who the legal successor should be, but there was no shortage of claimants. The newly elected lieutenant governor—Melvin E. Thompson—felt that by virtue of his office, which had been created in 1945, he would automatically be elevated to the governorship. But the Georgia Constitution wasn’t crystal clear about this.
Meanwhile, Eugene Talmadge’s son—Herman—and his allies suggested otherwise. They believed that the Constitution required the Georgia General Assembly to choose between the second and third finishers from the general election. Since there was only one Democratic nominee and no Republican, then that meant they would have to choose between the two most popular write-in candidates. Not so coincidentally, Herman Talmadge was one of those write-in candidates—likely the result of fraud.
Despite Talmadge’s and Thompson’s disagreement, the General Assembly sided with Talmadge and elected him as governor, but the dispute was far from settled. In fact, the outgoing, term-limited governor—Ellis Arnall—declared that he wouldn’t relinquish his office until matters were fully resolved. There was, after all, a mess of lawsuits and plenty of confusion. Suddenly, Georgia had three men who all claimed to be governor.
Nevertheless, after being sworn in, Talmadge and his faction entered the governor’s office where they found Arnall and his associates, and then the two men’s supporters—some drunk and emotional—began brawling. The fight soon ended, but Talmadge took control of the governor’s office and had the locks changed so that Arnall wouldn’t be able to return. Undaunted, Arnall eventually set up temporary workspace in the capitol rotunda.
Talmadge’s tenure only lasted a few months because the Georgia Supreme Court invalidated his election and asserted that the General Assembly had exceeded its purview. Thereupon, the lieutenant governor—Melvin E. Thompson—became governor temporarily. He held the post for about a year and a half when a new gubernatorial election was held. The primary pitted Thompson against Talmadge, but the latter ultimately won the election.
At the present date, this story is kind of humorous and charming, but in 1946-1947, it was a humiliating disgrace, which probably made Georgia the butt of national jokes. So, what does this have to do with the looming presidential elections?
People worry that the candidates may contest the election results or reject them altogether for whatever reason. While some have proffered different doomsday scenarios over how the elections could turn out, Georgia’s “three governors controversy” provides valuable lessons.
Fraud played a role in the Talmadge/Thompson/Arnall fiasco, and some impassioned voters even resorted to violence. Neither should be allowed to impact the 2020 election. Rather, politicians must maintain a calm, reasoned voice, instead of an inciteful one, and elections officials need to be ever-vigilant against fraud in order to forestall even the pretenses of an illegitimate election.
Finally, while different parties during the Talmadge/Thompson/Arnall debacle seemed petty and childish, in the end, they ultimately respected constitutional forms. When the Georgia Supreme Court issued its ruling, all factions accepted it as the rule of law. Likewise, each party in the coming elections must respect our constitutional forms and checks and balances. If they have questions or concerns over the results, then the plaintiffs must voice their complaints in the appropriate forums, traverse the legally prescribed means and accept the courts’ rulings.
The American Republic only works so long as people willingly support our guiding principles and act within their bounds. Ensuring that this tradition continues is critical because it helps maintain the integrity of our system of governance.