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This Day in History: The Contentious Election of 1876

At about this time in 1876, the presidential election of 1876 was supposed to be decided. Except it wasn’t. Instead, disputes over the election outcome would continue all the way through March.

It must have been ugly—but it could have been even worse.

The Electoral College helped the country that year in an unexpected way: It isolated election disputes to only four states. Without the Electoral College, every vote in every state could have been contested. Would things have spun completely out of control?

They truly could have. In those post-Civil War years, the nation was starkly divided between North and South. Many Southerners were still chafing under the restrictions of Reconstruction. Fraud and dishonesty were too pervasive. Black voters were sometimes denied access to the polls. At least one study has concluded that a “fair and free election” would have turned out differently in 1876.

In other words, the scene was set for a hotly contested political contest.

Republicans had nominated Rutherford B. Hayes, the Governor of Ohio. Meanwhile, Democrats had nominated Samuel J. Tilden, the Governor of New York.

The results on Election Day couldn’t have made anyone happy. Hayes appeared to have about 250,000 fewer popular votes, nationwide, than Tilden; however, the all-important electoral vote was still up for grabs. Twenty electors were disputed in four states. In Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, state officials couldn’t agree on who had won. Thus, multiple slates of electors were submitted from each of those states. One electoral vote in Oregon was also disputed. Hayes needed all 20 of these electors to win. Tilden needed just one.

Can you imagine what CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC would do with such a situation today?!?

Americans in 1876 didn’t have the benefits of such modern technology, of course. Instead, they waited for weeks to see which candidate would be declared the victor.

The situation prompted plenty of political grandstanding!

The Senate was then controlled by Republicans, while the House was controlled by Democrats. No one knew what to do about the conflicting sets of election returns, but Congress finally created a (constitutionally questionable) Electoral Commission. That committee was supposed to be evenly divided, with seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and one independent Supreme Court Justice. It didn’t turn out that way. Instead, Independent Justice David Davis was unexpectedly elected to the Senate by the Illinois state legislature. His spot on the commission was taken by Justice Joseph Bradley, a Republican appointee.

Unsurprisingly, the Republican-controlled Commission soon decided all 20 disputed electoral votes in favor of Hayes, throwing the election to him.

Naturally, Democrats were upset, and a filibuster nearly sidetracked congressional acceptance of the Commission’s findings. Eventually, though, Congress brokered a compromise: Republicans indicated that they would be willing to bring Reconstruction to an end. In return, southern congressmen began withdrawing their objections.

Hayes was finally declared the winner of the election at about 4:00 a.m. on March 2. Of course, action came about mostly because Congress had its back up against a wall: Only two days then remained in President Ulysses S. Grant’s term.

After all the turmoil, Rutherford B. Hayes was finally sworn in as the country’s 19th President on March 4, 1877.

P.S. At this juncture, you know I must offer a friendly reminder that a more complete discussion of these issues can be found in my book, Why We Need the Electoral College.



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