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Since the news broke last week that Jimmy Carter is at home receiving hospice care, the nation has been reflecting on the long legacy of the Man from Plains. One word most associated with Carter is “democracy,” as the 98-year-old president has safeguarded elections longer than most Georgians have been alive.
The president’s passing will be a blow to democracy safeguarding efforts everywhere, said Jonathan Stonestreet, associate director of the Carter Center’s Democracy Program. “He had the kind of stature that would lead people to listen to him and maybe do things that weren’t in their personal interest,” said Stonestreet. “His are big shoes to fill.”
The Carter Center is renowned for its international elections monitoring, but Carter never completely took his eye off of democracy in his own backyard in Georgia. After all, he’d personally experienced election fraud in his home state more than 60 years ago.
A hero of democracy’s origin story
For news reports that got the story wrong, “[Jimmy] Carter from Plains, who lost to Homer Moore,” doesn’t come close to the infamy of “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Yet the Columbus, Ga., newspaper article is arguably more significant because of everything that happened afterward.
It was 1962, the year Carter ran for a seat in the Georgia State Senate. Coincidentally, the Democratic Party primary featured the young peanut farmer against a powerful peanut buyer—Homer Moore—whom Carter described in his 2015 biography A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety as someone “whom I knew and respected as an honest business competitor.”
Yet the primary election itself wasn’t so honest. Carter was up by 75 votes, and all the returns were in from six of the South Georgia counties in the district. But in tiny Quitman County, a remote southwestern outpost at the Alabama line, the vote was 360 to 136 for Moore–although only 333 people had voted. Even so, the media declared Moore the winner.
Carter heard that the county’s Democratic Party chairman, Joe Hurst, was stuffing the ballot box and pressuring people to vote for Moore. After local newspapers and the state Democratic Party dismissed his complaints, he convinced John Pennington, an Atlanta Journal reporter, to investigate.
Pennington found out that 117 voters had somehow all voted in exact alphabetical order. What’s more, he discovered, some were either dead, in prison, or no longer living in Quitman County. Shortly after the details of vote fraud appeared in a series of front-page Atlanta Journal stories, Carter petitioned for a recount, and a judge declared him the winner.
Thwarting those election shenanigans “triggered a lifelong interest in protecting electoral democracy” for Carter, Stonestreet said.
After losing his bid for a second presidential term to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Carter quickly transitioned from election loser to election protector. He started the Carter Center in Atlanta in 1982 to promote peace, human rights, public health–and election integrity. Carter spent the next few decades traveling indefatigably to monitor elections, conduct peace negotiations, and work with the World Health Organization to eradicate Guinea worm disease.
The Carter Center’s Democracy Program has monitored over 110 elections in dozens of countries—China, Egypt, Nicaragua, Mexico, Tunisia, and more. “[We] helped build consensus on standards for democratic elections, perhaps the most fundamental of which are the rights to vote and be elected,” Carter said in a 2021 statement.
In the early years, the program focused on elections in developing countries. Stonestreet personally witnessed Carter’s power to tame electoral dysfunction during an observation mission in Nepal. On Nov. 19, 2013, Nepal held its second constituent assembly election for voters to select representatives from its numerous political parties to draft a new constitution. The first constituent assembly had failed to produce one, following a 2006 peace agreement that ended a long-running civil war.
Nepal’s Maoist party, which lost the majority it held in the previous constituent assembly, alleged that the elections were rigged, saying ballot boxes had been hidden, stuffed or swapped. Not so, said Carter, who assured the party’s aggrieved leader that the election was fair.
“President Carter told him, ‘I know what it’s like to lose an election. I know how hard it is to give up power. But, you need to move forward with this,’ ” Stonestreet said. “I’m sure many others gave that same message, but President Carter was the right person, at the right time, with real information.”
The Carter Center’s gaze turned to the United States during the tumultuous presidential election of 2000, when George W. Bush beat Al Gore thanks to a Supreme Court decision that stopped a very narrow vote recount in Florida. That highly contested decision caused the Democracy Program to recommend a series of reforms regarding voting procedures, recount resolution policy, and campaign finance reform. In 2005 Carter co-chaired a bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform with former Secretary of State James A. Baker that also recommended a number of reforms. The commission’s recommendations were revisited following former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election.
“I now fear that what we have fought so hard to achieve globally—the right to free, fair elections, unhindered by strongman politicians who seek nothing more than to grow their own power—has become dangerously fragile at home,” Carter wrote in a New York Times opinion piece in early 2022.
Georgia elections on his mind
Carter has served as a watchdog for democracy in Georgia as well. Days before the 2018 gubernatorial election, he urged Brian Kemp, who’s now governor, to resign from his then-role as Secretary of State, since Kemp was also running as the Republican candidate for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams. In a move that drew sharp criticism, Kemp already had purged hundreds of thousands of voters from the state’s electoral rolls in 2017, just months after declaring his intent to run for governor.
“In Georgia’s upcoming gubernatorial election, popular confidence is threatened not only by the undeniable racial discrimination of the past and the serious questions that the federal courts have raised about the security of Georgia’s voting machines, but also because you are now overseeing the election in which you are a candidate,” Carter personally wrote to Kemp in a letter that quickly became public.
Kemp refused to budge, but so did Carter. The former president railed against the GOP wing of the Georgia General Assembly in early 2021 for pushing legislation that would further restrict voting. Republicans billed it as election reform in response to the state’s highly contentious and contested 2020 presidential vote, where Georgia became ground zero for recounts after Trump’s vociferous election challenges.
“I am disheartened, saddened, and angry,” Carter said of the legislation, which Gov. Kemp signed into law a few months later.
Last fall, the Carter Center unveiled an initiative called Candidate Principles for Trusted Elections, which asks political candidates to commit to upholding “five core doctrines” of democratic elections: integrity, nonviolence, security, oversight, and the peaceful transfer of power.
Republicans and Democrats alike were among those who signed on in Georgia, including Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for the GOP, and Abrams and Sen. Raphael Warnock, both Democrats.
How is it possible that President Carter could still make noise in Georgia elections more than 60 years after altering the course of his own?
“It’s not like he can wave a magic wand or something and make good election things happen,” said Stonestreet. “But he has always known when and how to use his influence to good effect.”
HERE’S MORE ABOUT THE CARTER CENTER
Learn more information about the Carter Center’s democracy work here. Contact them and sign up for their event mailing list here.
To plan a visit to the center, which houses a museum of Jimmy Carter memorabilia and his Presidential Library, start here.