Richard Grove’s Winston-Salem Journal
Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican governor of Ohio, went to bed on the evening of November 7, 1876, thinking he had lost his bid for President of the United States.
The repercussions of that election, considered the most controversial in American history, are still being felt 145 years later.
As Election Day drew to a close, Hayes’ rival, Samuel Tilden, the Democratic governor of New York, had a 250,000 lead in the popular vote and a seemingly insurmountable lead in the electoral college. The outstanding ballots were in the South, where Democrats were strongest.
The following morning the newspapers announced Tilden’s victory. Hayes told friends, “I think the Democrats carried the country and voted for Tilden.”
But John Reid, editor of the New York Times, saw potential victory where other Hayes supporters had resigned themselves to defeat: If Hayes somehow won the remaining uncertified Southern states – Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana – he would Electoral College by the smallest margin win by margins – one.
Crucial to Reid’s plan was that the electoral commissions responsible for counting votes in the three southern states were dominated by Republicans.
Remember: that was during reconstruction.
Reid woke Republican National Chairman Zachariah Chandler out of bed at 3 a.m. and convinced him to send the following cable to Republican officials in the three states: “Hayes is elected when we’ve promoted South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. can you keep your condition Reply immediately.”
Republicans in the electoral bodies of the three remaining states set out to cast Tilden votes in bulk — 13,000 versus just 2,000 for Hayes in Louisiana. Hayes was named winner in all three states.
Angry, the Democrats met at the billboards and declared Tilden the winner.
Faced with the untold task of deciding between competing electoral rolls, Congress appointed a 15-member Electoral Commission — eight Republicans and seven Democrats — to handle things.
Historian John Garrity says: “Even a Solomon would have found it difficult to judge in the face of a mass of rumour, lies and contradictory statements.” Unfortunately, “the electoral commission was not made up of Solomon Islands”.
The sorting proceeded according to strict party lines. Hayes won each of the contested Southern states 8-7, earning him 185 electoral college votes versus 184 for Tilden.
The country seemed to explode. It was rumored that Civil War veterans from 15 states would march on Washington and demand that Tilden be declared president.
The problem was solved the good old American way. In a series of backroom meetings — or maybe it was just one meeting — leaders from all parties met and reached an agreement: the Democrats agreed to accept Hayes as president and the Republicans agreed to finish Reconstruction.
Chaos was averted, federal troops went home, America had a President, and there were two days to go until Inauguration Day.
Was Rutherford B. Hayes the President the American People Wanted? Who knows.
In an effort to organize the chaos that broke out in 1876, Congress passed the Electoral Count Act, archived it, and stayed there for 135 years until the 2020 presidential election, which saw a suitable runner-up for the title of “the most contested.” Election in American History”: 62 lawsuits (of which Trump lost 61) and a joint session of Congress that stretched into the early hours of January 7, 2021, punctuated by a 7-hour lull as rioters through the Capitol raged.
Half the country is still mad about it.
Even in Washington it was evident that the Electoral Counts Act was not up to the task of organizing the election of our highest officials.
In July, a bill (S4573) was introduced in the Senate that clarifies that the role of the Senate President is purely ministerial, clarifies that only governors have the authority to produce certificates identifying the state’s constituents, and dramatically increases the number required to object against a state’s electoral roll from two — that’s right, two — to one-fifth of the members of the House and Senate.
In a city where a bill supported by 200 Democrats and two Republicans is described as “bipartisan,” S4573 was introduced by Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Manchin, DW.Va., and walked out of a Group of 16 incumbent senators, equally divided, Democrat and Republican.
Will S4573 be law in 2024 and will it save us from repeating 1876 and 2020?
Please, dear God, let it be.