November 30, 2012

1876: Just vote as many times as you want there, sir.

Have you seen Spielberg's Lincoln? Do you remember the scene when Lincoln is convincing the Congressman from Kentucky to vote for the amendment, and Rep. Kentucky says "We're not ready for freed slaves" and Lincoln says "We're not ready for peace either" and everyone goes ah hahaha rhetorical genius.

They were both right. Man, the 1860s sucked. Also the 1870s. Johnson was an unmitigated disaster of a president, Grant was a competent leader but not forceful enough for the times. Hoogenboom keeps calling the Grant administration "rife with corruption," and that hurts my feelings, but it's true that it was not an opportune time to lead with quiet dignity and hope everyone noticed.

ANYWAY. The Republican party was fixing to split in two. The radical faction were eager for full civil rights for freed slaves, the moderate faction was not. The division was stark enough that no candidate for the 1876 election could satisfy both sides. Enter Rutherford B Hayes, who had been out of national government for 11 years. He had served two terms as Ohio's governor (his pet project? prison reform! full of surprises, was Rud) and then retired. After a few years of leisure, adding on to his house and serving on library boards, he ran for a third term at the urging of his political allies, who had the express goal of nominating him for a president once he was back in office. And he did in fact emerge as the nominee from the 9 original candidates, because he's Rud Hayes and everything is easy, but especially because he was moderate and had been away from the fray for 11 years, so no one had any beef with him (just like how James Buchanan got nominated, except different because Hayes wasn't a blowhard).

He ran in the general election against Democrat Samuel Tilden, and here's where the horror of the 1870s comes in. The Republican party in the South was almost entirely black, the Democratic party almost entirely white. There had, at one point, been white Republicans, but when all the blacks got the right to vote and became Republican they were like, bye! Because of racism. Southern Democrats were not in favor of "Republicans" voting, and tried to stop them from doing so with intimidation, violence, and trickery. Some Democratic ballots were printed with pictures of Abraham Lincoln's head at the top so that illiterate "Republicans" would think they were voting for Republican when they were not. In other cases, Democratic election workers would allow fellow whites "Democrats" to vote as many times as they pleased.

So, according to historical record, Tilden "won the popular vote," but the real story is complicated. Many of Tilden's votes were fraudulently obtained or duplicate. Many, many Republicans were prevented from voting. The election results in Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon were contested, leaving 20 electoral votes unassigned after the initial counts came in. (Oregon was disputed merely because one of its electors had a federal job, and therefore was ineligible to be an elector, but there was never any questions Oregon would go to Hayes.)

It was up to the president of the Senate, Senator Thomas Ferry, to decide which electoral votes to count (there was at that moment no vice president). Ferry was like, thanks but no thanks, so Congress formed an Electoral Commission made up of 5 Senators, 5 Representatives, and 5 Supreme Court justices. They heard arguments on the voting results in the 3 disputed states. Their decision boiled down to the fact that, while thousands of votes for each candidate were thrown out, more Democratic votes were thrown out than Republican votes, and they gave all 20 disputed electoral votes to Hayes, 2 days before inauguration.

A lot of attention is paid to the fact that Tilden won the popular vote but lost the election, but the popular vote he won is made of fictions. A just election of registered votes would probably have elected Hayes. A just election did not take place in 1876, but I'm convinced the people's preferred candidate got the job anyway. Hurray for the legislature!

This is an interesting recap of the election, if you like numbers.

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