Could a single electoral vote decide the US presidency?

Fraud voters New York 1876

If you spend some time reading reports from media of times gone by, or wandering around inside the innards of the US Library of Congress, it becomes evident divisive politics and controversial elections are part of the history of our country. Did you know the US had one election decided by a single electoral vote? Did you also know vote fraud allegations are nothing new in US politics?

Early Vote sign Jacksonville, FLIn notable ways, the 1876 presidential election was very much like the election we are holding today in the United States. Our young country was divided as Reconstruction approached its waning days.

In New York, Tammany Hall was undergoing scrutiny and changes as Boss Tweed [William Magear Tweed], powerful titan of New York’s Democratic Party machine, unsuccessfully fled authorities after capitalizing on unbridled power:

“The Tweed ring then proceeded to milk the city through such devices as faked leases, padded bills, false vouchers, unnecessary repairs, and overpriced goods and services bought from suppliers controlled by the ring. Vote fraud at elections was rampant.”

Tweed died in prison.

There’s an interesting photo in the Library of Congress digital collection. Published December 9, 1876, the photo caption reads:

“Fraudulent voters of the presidential election in custody at the United States Circuit Court, New York llus. in: The Illustrated London News, 1876 Dec. 9.”

Tammany Hall’s reputation has undergone attempts at revision among some pundits who point out the organization’s success in aiding immigrants to the US in order to help them vote. In my opinion this was no deed done of honor. Tammany Hall’s political machinists capitalized on newly arrived immigrants, many of them Irish, as a resource for building party power.

That 1876 election was not easily decided. The Democrat Samuel Tilden led with “more than 260,000 popular votes,” according to History.com. Those popular votes translated, however, to “only 184 electoral votes—one shy of the number needed.”

The decision fell to a committee. Then as now Dems controlled the US House of Representatives; Republicans controlled the US Senate:

“[T]he two sides compromised by creating a bipartisan electoral commission with five representatives, five senators and five Supreme Court justices.

Though the commission was supposed to be comprised of seven Republicans, seven Democrats and one independent, the independent—Supreme Court Justice David Davis—ended up dropping out when he was offered a Senate seat, and a Republican was named to replace him. In the end, after a series of votes along strict party lines, the commission awarded [Rutherford B.] Hayes all three of the contested states in early March 1877, making him the winner by a single electoral vote.”

Both major parties came together with a plan, The Compromise of 1877, whereby newly elected President Hayes yielded to Dems in the South, agreeing to basically stay out of their local governments as long as they accepted Hayes as president.

The Civil War was still a fresh memory in the minds of many at the time, but as a lifelong Southerner, I can attest that agreement placed Dems in power in my homeland for many years to come. Once Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock in 1957 to protect black students trying to attend white schools, Democrats’ power strengthened in the South. As I grew up, I often heard Eisenhower condemned for that action. Even as a young child, it made no sense to me to try to keep any student regardless of color from attending a school, but I have come to realize my upbringing was quite different from that of many others.

It took months for the Commission to decide the winner of the presidential election held in November in 1876.

Times were fractured then in the aftermath of a war that had seen families with members fighting on both sides in a bloody war that might have been avoided had calmer heads prevailed.

Hayes kept his promise to only serve one term in the presidency, and he worked hard to bring a divided nation together after that horrendous war.

The specter of slavery still haunts US politics today. Permitting that practice was a grave mistake in our young country, a decision that benefited the few at the expense of the many. Unfortunately, slavery remains in place today, “with modern-day slavery most prevalent in Africa followed by Asia and Pacific.”

Whatever the outcome of today’s election, our Republic will still be here once the winner is decided. The state of that Republic will in large part rest on decisions made by the president and our Congress. How much power we willingly yield to both rests in our hands, the American people.

Unlike that election of 1876 when the vast majority of American women could not vote, most who are of age can vote today. As in times past, most voters who head to the polls today will vote in their own self-interest, one of many manifestations of the human condition.

~~Featured Photo: Fraudulent voters of the presidential election in custody at the United States Circuit Court, New York illus. in: The Illustrated London News, 1876 Dec. 9. Image from US Library of Congress.

(Kay B. Day/November 3, 2020)

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