November 4, 2020

A Very Short History of Contested Presidential Elections

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by John Colie 

Editor’s note: Historical information from this article comes from two main sources: “Our Most Vulnerable Election” by Pamala Karlan, published in the New York Review of Books, and The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents by William A. DeGregorio. By the time this article is published, we might have a slightly better idea of how this year’s presidential election might turn out. Make no mistake: even though either candidate’s campaign, as well as various media outlets, will try their best to declare a victor the night of Election Day, there is actually a possibility that we will not know for sure who the true winner is for a few days. This is due to a number of factors, including the fact that many people are voting via absentee or mail-in ballots, laws in certain states barring the processing of absentee ballots until Election Day itself and other complications. A possible prolonged dispute over the official results looks more and more possible. If a dispute does arise, it will definitely not be the first time that a presidential election’s results have been disputed or launched the country into turmoil. Of course, the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore often comes to mind, with a recount battle over electoral votes in Florida so fraught with problems it made its way to the Supreme Court. Many people still criticize the court’s decision for simply splitting over ideological lines in stopping the recount, effectively granting Bush Florida’s electoral votes and the presidency itself. However, there is another contested election from America’s history which was arguably even more contested, contentious and consequential for the tide of this country’s history: that of 1876.

By the time this election came around, the Civil War had only ended 11 years ago, with many of the wounds it inflicted on America and its population still quite prominent. During this period, known as Reconstruction, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments had been passed, increasing rights for freed enslaved people around the country. However, many Southern Democratic politicians were doing what they could to stop this transformation from happening, instituting Black codes, poll taxes, literacy tests and other measures designed to subjugate Black voters. The only thing stopping them from completely disenfranchising Black voters and members of their states’ populations outright was the presence of federal troops in those regions.

It was amidst this tense national atmosphere that Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden and Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes vied for control of the White House. Complicating matters for Hayes, the administration of incumbent Republican president Ulysses S. Grant had unfortunately fallen prey to multiple scandals and instances of corruption, casting a pall over the Republican party as a whole that Tilden and the Democratic Party were eager to exploit. As the race continued, America seemed to be on track to elect its first Democratic president in almost 20 years.

And it initially seemed like Tilden would win, clinching the popular vote and gaining 184 electoral votes, only one short of the 185 needed to win the Electoral College at that time. But then, a dispute arose in multiple states, including Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, over who exactly had won their electoral votes, amounting to 20 overall. Hayes himself, who had only received 165 electoral votes, initially believed Tilden was the winner as well, but other Republicans realized that Hayes could still win as long as he was awarded every disputed electoral vote. Seizing upon this path, the Republican Party confidently claimed victory for their candidate instead.

Ultimately, it was decided that a special commission, consisting of five members each from both chambers of Congress and the Supreme Court, would be formed to decide which candidate would receive the disputed votes, a process determined to be finished by March 4, 1877: the beginning of the next presidential term. In its final configuration, this committee consisted of eight Republican members and seven Democratic members; after a grueling period of weeks, it finally decided to award all 20 electoral votes to Hayes, handing him the election in the process. Curiously, the final vote in favor of Hayes passed eight-to-seven.

When this decision was handed down, Democratic politicians became livid, only dropping their objections after meeting with Republican lawmakers to cement the details of the informal Compromise of 1877. As per the terms of this agreement, Democratic lawmakers would accept the electoral commission’s decision in return for a number of policy changes, the most prominent of which was the withdrawal of those federal troops in the South — a decision which proved consequential in paving the way for the Jim Crow era and subjugation of Black citizens in the South, still felt today in many ways. Ironically, Tilden’s winning of the popular vote probably resulted from widespread voter suppression of formerly enslaved people within the South, but many of their expanded rights still vanished regardless of who won anyway. Because of this deal, many historians say that Hayes’s ultimate victory directly led to the end of the Reconstruction era. In truth, the factors which contributed to this are more complex than that, but the outcome — that federal troops were withdrawn from the South, allowing many politicians free rein to institute the framework for Jim Crow — was undeniable.

Looking back on this affair, what relevance does the Election of 1876 hold for us now, as we watch election results funnel in? Well, even the most outlandish possibilities can still occur, with incredibly monumental consequences for this country’s direction and even that of history. All of us probably hope that 2020 is not a repeat of 1876 in any way, but it surprisingly does not take much for an election to fall prey to malevolent forces and sheer unfortunate occurrences that might influence its outcome and even subvert the will of the broader American population.

John Colie can be reached at [email protected]. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.