Republican Rutherford Hayes became the 19th U.S. President during the nation’s centennial year, defeating Democrat Samuel Tilden by one electoral vote (185 to 184) in what has been called the most dubious election in American history.
It did not happen in the last presidential election despite incumbent President Trump’s devious plot to overturn his defeat.
Yet rigging the results for Trump or his surrogate presidential candidate could occur in 2024 if Trump loyalists control the election mechanism in battleground states Trump lost — Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona.
If MAGA Republicans successfully oust traditional conservatives and moderates in the party, then gain a larger voice in the Senate and House in the 2022 midterm elections, the path is clear for revenge by any means.
The presidential election of 1876 offers a prologue to what’s possible. Manipulating the results within the election system led to the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, who served as a tainted president for four years.
Considered by historians as America’s most dubious presidential election, it had as much to do with bitterly divided post-Civil War race politics as the candidates. Republicans and Democrats were on the opposite political sides of their positions today.
Hayes, the Ohio governor, carried the banner for progressives in the name of Abraham Lincoln. Democrat Samuel Tilden, New York’s governor, had the support of white supremacists in the South, where Black voter suppression featured intimidation and death threats.
Election night in November saw Tilden enjoying a wide lead in the popular vote. He just needed one additional electoral vote to reach the 185 required to become president. Hayes tallied 166 electoral votes. As the national results wound down, both candidates claimed 19 disputed electoral ballots from South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. Lawyers subsequently fought over ballots and accusations of fraud.
A month-long impasse preceded Congress convening Dec. 7, 1876, to certify the states’ electoral votes, including competing slates of electors from each of the three disputed southern states. Instead of selecting one over the other, Congress created a bipartisan Electoral Commission to break the deadlock, which eventually gave Hayes all 19 of the contested electoral votes and the presidency.
But not before Hayes had agreed to a secret deal with Tilden supporters to withdraw federal troops from the South and end Republican policies of post-Civil War Reconstruction. The bargain gave birth to Jim Crow laws and endeared the white South to Democrats for decades, ending only when they began advocating for national civil rights laws in the 1950s.
The same farcical process could have occurred in the aftermath of the 2020 election if Trump’s efforts to strong-arm Republican election officials in close-result states had been successful. And if Vice President Mike Pence had complied with Trump’s request to reject the electoral votes for Biden from a half-dozen states, creating chaos aimed at letting the Republican dominated state legislatures pick the president.
Don’t breathe a sigh of relief.
Given the nation’s political cleavage, there is every chance competing electors could confront the Congress when it meets to certify the electoral votes in the 2024 election. The Trump-aligned mob that stormed the Capitol Jan. 6 to stop the process of declaring Democrat Joe Biden the next president didn’t achieve its goal. Now, the stratagem has shifted to the grassroots level of counting votes.
Trump did not go gentle into the shade of former presidents. He cursed his enemies, courted conspiracy theories and played to his cult with fiery rhetoric of a stolen election. He held tight to his position as titular head of the Republican Party and promised return of his brand of politics.
Trump’s revenge crusade has attracted millions of Americans who falsely believe he won the 2020 election. They include Republican state lawmakers who have changed how people can vote and when — and how votes are tabulated. In a few states, Republican partisans have seized election oversight from independent election boards.
“Find me votes” may get results for Trump next time. His Republican acolytes are pursuing well-funded campaigns for critical election offices such as county clerk, county election board, secretary of state, attorney general, state legislature and governor.
Additionally, Trump-style election law changes in some GOP-controlled states limit mail-in voting, eliminate or curtail drop boxes, reduce poll stations, purge voting lists, broaden ID requirements, and otherwise make it harder to vote.
The intention is clear: Lessen the record voter turnout of 158 million Americans in 2020, especially among age, ethnic and racial groups that tend to vote for Democrats. Clamp down on the will to vote.
There is an antidote. It requires both parties setting aside their bitter partisan warfare, come together in Congress as elected representatives of American democracy, and agree on a national voter rights act that sets standards to protect the right of eligible voters to cast their ballots by mail or in person without partisan restrictions.
Congress should also revamp the 1887 Electoral Count Act to shore up the federal election process and prevent subversion of the Electoral College results by baseless challenges.
It is time to kill the ghost of the 1876 election fiasco.
Bill Ketter is CNHI's senior vice president for news. Reach him at email@example.com.