The Corrupt County Unit System

Advocating for Atlanta Voters

"We just want to be fellow citizens in every sense of the word."

“Atlanta - Since, I, along with others, have spoken out against the county unit system, it is but natural for its defenders to fire back. As usual they rely on prejudice and hate because they have no logic on their side...

Why must Georgia always decide its statewide political affairs in an atmosphere of class hatred, prejudice, bigotry and demagoguery? Why do so few men of outstanding ability offer for public office? Why do so few vote in Georgia compared with other sections? Why is the emphasis in Georgia on making it hard to vote instead of encouraging intelligent voter participation?

The demagogues... will scream about minorities in Atlanta in order to hide the fact that for years Georgia has been ruled by a tight county unit minority and a rural bloc vote. As usual, they will flail the Negro and intimate that we are all Communists and agents of the NAACP...

We who oppose the county unit system do not hate our friends in the rural areas. We are not extremists on either side. Certainly, Atlanta does not want to dominate the state. We just want to be fellow citizens in every sense of the word.”

Editor's Note: The above excerpt comes from an editorial Mayor Hartsfield wrote for The Atlanta Constitution explaining his opposition to the county unit system. Throughout his time in office, Hartsfield fought against the county unit system which he argued unfairly prioritized the voices and votes of rural Georgians over the needs of urban voters.

Within the county unit system, each county in Georgia received a set number of unit votes in statewide primary elections. The number of unit votes allotted to each county depended on their classification as an urban, town, or rural county. The urban counties received six-unit votes, the town counties received four-unit votes, and the rural counties received two-unit votes. This allotment of unit votes favored rural voters by giving them a greater voice in primary elections relative to the number of people living in rural areas. Because most of the 159 counties in Georgia were classified as rural counties, these counties received a far greater number of unit votes even though more people lived in urban counties. 

Under the county unit system, the votes of Georgians living in Atlanta or other populous cities did not weigh as much as those of rural voters. This meant that candidates in primary elections did not need to win the popular vote and often, only campaigned in rural areas of the state, ignoring voters in cities like Atlanta. Hartsfield denounced the county unit system for disenfranchising the city voter.

In 1958, he set in motion a court case against the county unit system that would eventually make it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Hartsfield would finally win his battle against the unit system when the courts outlawed the system in 1962, ruling that it violated the principle of ‘one man, one vote.’