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In one close election, concession was 'best for state'

Skip Foster, Star Editor

SHELBY - There were no TV networks to project the winner of the 1920 election for North Carolina governor. If there had been, it would have been "too close to call" - for about 11 days.

Sound familiar?

In an election strikingly similar to the current presidential morass, then-Lt. Gov. O. Max Gardner Sr. squared off against Charlotte's Cameron Morrison in the Democratic primary for the top spot in the state.

In those days, the winner of the Democratic primary was a lock to be elected governor. The election was June 5 and the count took until June 16. When the electoral dust had cleared, Morrison led Gardner by 87 votes, less than 1 vote per county.

O. Max Gardner III, a present-day Shelby attorney, says the similarities between that race and the Gore-Bush deadlock are many.

"That year was the first year North Carolina allowed the use of absentee ballots," O. Max Gardner III said. "These ballots were primarily devised for use of the men in the military service.

"My grandfather had hard evidence of fraud in a number of eastern counties. After several days of intense pressure from his supporters to file legal proceedings in court, he decided that it would be in the best interest of the state and his party to concede the election to Morrison."

Eight years later, Gardner Sr. had no opposition in the Democratic primary for governor and was elected in November.

O. Max Gardner III says his grandfather would have a problem with how things are panning out in Florida. In particular, he said, he believes his grandfather would have opposed the manual recount of only some of Florida's counties.

"I really don't think that's fair," said Gardner III. "I think my grandfather would say, if we're going to hand county votes in four counties, it should be done in all counties. He would encourage both sides to meet together, to stop all this spin, litigation and threatened litigation."

Gardner III said the loser might quickly find a silver lining.

"If you lose in a way like my grandfather lost in 1920, you certainly have great advantages the next time you run. Everybody in the party felt like he had done in 1920 not what was the best thing for him, but what was best for the state. He was recognized for that."

Joseph L. Morrison, in his biography of O. Max Gardner Sr., wrote: "His being utterly free of rancor singled him out as the best political sport in Tar Heel annals. His defeat had made him a statewide figure, and his conduct quickly pushed him to the fore as the likeliest man for governor next time."

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