Talking with Al Davison at Melissa Link’s after-party last week, we were lamenting the loss of communal vote-counting. Not so long ago, to get the results of a local election you had to go down to the courthouse and stand around with everybody else—the candidates and their supporters and family, the press, political junkies—and wait, while the results were posted, precinct by precinct, with the lead frequently shifting on each posting. It took a while, and it could be agonizing, waiting for Board of Elections member John Elliott to come out and write the new results on the big, green chalkboard. But in between precincts, we visited, sometimes with candidates we had fought, and when the outcome became clear, we celebrated and commiserated and felt like we had participated in a civic rite.
Now, of course, we’re checking the returns on our computers and our phones or waiting for Blake Aued to shoot a fresh In the Loop blog post onto flagpole.com. We’re either alone or at a candidate’s post-election gathering, and to see all the candidates, you’ve got to know where their parties are, and you’ve got to refrain from drinking and drive all over town. And the one-candidate parties (or wakes) lack that big, communal gathering of friends and foes alike that used be election night. All that was before we had early voting, too, so it all happened on election day. Everybody voted, and then we got the results that night. That added to the importance of election day.
I first felt that election-day excitement while growing up over in Greene County. The state at that time was heavily Democratic. The few Republicans were largely urban good-government types who were offended by the race-based political machines in the state Capitol and the county courthouses. And, of course, the county courthouses ruled Georgia. The popular vote didn’t matter; the county-unit system did. Even the smallest counties got two unit votes. A few medium-sized counties got four votes, and the largest, including Fulton (Atlanta) got only six units. To use my father’s expression, you can “very readily see” that Atlanta ’n them simply did not count, but Greene County did. Its two votes, joined with other small counties all over the state, elected governors.
The state’s Democratic voters were divided between the pro-Talmadge forces and the anti-Talmadge “moderates,” generally outnumbered. We had similar factions within county politics, though that struggle reflected the competition between Greensboro and Union Point, with the smaller communities choosing sides.
So, on a statewide basis and locally, the men hanging around the courthouse on election night had a stake in the outcome: They were players, and they included the African-American voters, who by that time and in spite of the opposition of some die-hard segregationists, could vote and did, and their vote was sought by the politicians, local and state.
The votes were counted out in the country communities and then driven in to the courthouse to be certified. Sometimes it took forever, and occasionally, a country elections supervisor would just go to bed and finish in the morning. My father was an ardent anti-Talmadge Democrat, and several times I rode with him down to Liberty or out to Siloam to find out what the hell (his words) was going on with the late count. And of course, we’re talking paper ballots, each race marked by hand and counted one by one.
It was always late by the time the votes were in, but those involved knew they were part of something larger than themselves. It would have been inconceivable to them that anybody would let an election go by without even bothering to vote.