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Reliving the Three Governors Controversy, an Embarrassing Chapter in Georgia History

We live in a state where strange things happen in politics, but you’ll never see anything stranger than the time Georgia had three people who all claimed to be the state’s chief executive.

This was the infamous “three governors controversy,” the incident that made Georgia a national laughingstock and shaped the state’s politics for years. As we near the 70th anniversary of that scandalous event, Charles Bullock of the University of Georgia, Scott E. Buchanan and Ronald Keith Gaddie have co-authored The Three Governors Controversy, and it is a book that is both hilarious and excruciatingly painful to read.

It all started with the 1946 governor’s race. Gene Talmadge, a race-baiting populist who had dominated state politics for two decades, wanted to win one last term as governor. He was opposed in the Democratic primary by Jimmy Carmichael, a progressive Cobb County businessman.

Talmadge ran a racist campaign where he warned voters that if they didn’t elect him, “the Negroes will be riding the same coaches, sleeping in the same Pullman cars with white people, stopping in the same hotel, eating in the same restaurants and pay the bill to a Negro cashier.” It was an effective strategy for that era of segregation. Although Carmichael received 16,000 more votes, Talmadge won the primary by carrying more rural counties under the state’s antiquated county unit system.

Talmadge was assured of winning the general election, but his people wondered if he would live long enough to be sworn in. Years of heavy drinking had made him seriously ill. Talmadge’s advisers hatched a plan to have write-in ballots cast in the general election for his son and campaign manager, Herman Talmadge. They thought they could exploit an old state law that provided for the legislature to elect a governor if the governor-elect died before taking office. However, Georgia voters also elected M. E. Thompson as lieutenant governor, a position that had just been created in the new state constitution.

Gene Talmadge did indeed pass away on Dec. 21, triggering the chaotic events that followed. The General Assembly elected Herman Talmadge as the new governor in January 1947, but the Atlanta newspapers exposed the fact that the ballot box in Telfair County had been stuffed with fraudulent write-in votes cast by people who had died prior to the election. Thompson claimed he should be governor, as the constitution specified. Outgoing governor Ellis Arnall declared he wouldn’t hand over the office to Talmadge and would continue to serve as the chief executive.  It was two months before the Georgia Supreme Court sorted out the mess, ruling that Thompson was the governor and would serve until a special election in 1948, which Herman Talmadge legitimately won with the support of voters who were still living and breathing.

Bullock, Buchanan and Gaddie have produced an entertaining book that lays out all the details of this sordid affair. They especially deserve praise for their account of how the Talmadge campaign worked to keep blacks from voting in the primary. In many counties, local officials simply deleted the names of blacks who had registered on the spurious grounds that they couldn’t correctly answer questions about the U.S. Constitution. In one county, the registrar kept the voter registration book at her residence. “She ‘occasionally’ would allow whites to come to her home and register, but she ‘could not turn over my living room to Negroes’ and refused to allow them to register.” In another county, a local legislator stood in front of the polling place on election day with a shotgun and said that any blacks attempting to vote would be shot dead. None tried.

Seventy years later, the same issues of voter suppression and ballot box access are still being raised in the 2016 presidential race, showing once again how history keeps repeating itself.