Alabama Governor's Dispute Not Its First

The last time a congressman became Alabama's governor, the election dispute dragged on so long, the public witnessed two swearing-in ceremonies on inauguration day. Historians still question whether that 1894 vote tally was correct.

More than a century later, Alabama is in a similar position, with Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman and Republican Rep. Bob Riley both claiming to have won Tuesday's election, and Siegelman demanding a recount of the unofficial tally that shows Riley leading by 3,117 votes.

"Governors have behaved this way before,'' said Margaret Armbrester, co-author of the book "Alabama Governors.''

In the past, only one Alabama congressman succeeded in becoming governor: William C. Oates, in 1894.

In that year's election, Oates led Reuben Kolb 111,875 to 83,292, but allegations of election corruption flew. Armbrester's book concludes Oates' victory "was partly the result of stuffed ballot boxes in the Black Belt.''

This year, Siegelman is questioning the revised vote tally in coastal Baldwin County that put Riley ahead.

Election certifications completed Friday by Alabama's 67 counties showed Riley with 672,222 votes and Siegelman with 669,105. Attorney General Bill Pryor, a Republican, issued a ruling Friday blocking a statewide recount, but Siegelman attorney Joe Espy said the governor isn't giving up — he could still take the case to the courts.

In both elections, both candidates claimed victory.

In 1894, however, the Legislature eventually certified Oates, a Democrat, as the winner. Kolb and many of his Populist supporters refused to accept the results, but without the state constitution addressing a recount, there was little they could do, said Armbrester, an assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

When inauguration day arrived on Dec. 1, 1894, Kolb took the oath of office from a justice of the peace in downtown Montgomery. Then he and his angry supporters marched up Montgomery's main street to the Capitol, intent upon disrupting Oates' inauguration. They were turned aside by state troops, and Oates' inauguration continued.

Kolb eventually wearied of the election battle and left politics for several years. He made another run for the governor's office in 1914 but lost again.

Still, he wasn't forgotten.

"It was probably the most famous election in Alabama history,'' said State Archivist Ed Bridges. "The general consensus was the election was stolen by ballot fraud.''