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Presidential Electoral Controversy Nothing New in Florida

by Matthew Redinger on Nov 10, 2000

            Here we go again.  Florida is at the center of yet another presidentialelectoral controversy. The fate of the United States presidency hinges on the results of the Florida election returns in the elections of 2000 just as it did during the election of 1876.

            As the news media and lawyers from the Gore and the Bush campaigns
converged on Florida after Nov. 7 to witness the ballot recount and to
contest other issues, the attention of the nation turned south. The story
was much the same in 1876, when Florida was one of three states submitting
conflicting electoral returns.

            In the election of 1876, the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes,
vied for power with the Democrat candidate, Samuel J. Tilden. As in the
2000 election, the Democratic candidate led the national popular balloting,
with a 300,000-vote advantage. Tilden was also ahead in the electoral vote,
with 184 electoral votes, just one short of the majority needed for election.

            The Republicans, then as now, trailed in the popular vote as well as in
the electoral vote, claiming just 165 electoral votes. The controversy
arose out of conflicting returns from the states of Florida, South Carolina
and Louisiana, where rival Democratic and Republican election boards
submitted dual election returns. The election hinged on which returns were
deemed valid.

            The nation endured weeks of uncertainty and deadlock until January 29,
1877. Today, such a lengthy delay may seem unlikely, but the resolution in
this election may turn out to be as controversial as in 1876. Congress
chose to resolve the issue in 1876 through a special Electoral Commission
and a resulting complex set of commitments that came to be called the
Compromise of 1877.

            Tilden's Democrats accepted the Republican presidential victory only after
Hayes promised to end Radical Reconstruction, the policy of
controlling  the South through military occupation and enforcing
enfranchisement of former slaves. Through the Compromise of 1877,
Republicans pulled out federal troops and returned the traditional white
Democratic elite to power.

            In the election of 2000, we find significant similarities with 1876. As
was the case then, the Florida vote is a factor that leaves the presidency
hanging in the balance. Now, as then, the Democratic candidate led
nationally in the popular vote, as well as in the electoral vote, in the
days following the election. Today, the Republicans have everything to gain
in the results of the vote in Florida. In the election of 1876, the
Republicans finally conceded Florida to the Democrats because it was no
longer vital to them.

            But any willingness to concede Florida — and with it the election– is
clearly absent today. Even with George W. Bush calling for a quick
resolution after the recount, and with his transition team waiting
impatiently in the wings, such a concession seems extremely unlikely. The
Gore forces are aware that in Palm Beach County the vice president
apparently lost votes because of confusion surrounding the so-called
"butterfly ballot," in which punch holes for the voting machines ran down
the middle of the ballot, rather than on the right, as is required in
Florida law. The issue of a remedy remains unresolved.

            In the end, the African-American vote may again be one of the first
casualties of electoral controversy. In 1877, African-American voters lost
the most in the compromise that resolved the electoral conflict. The return
of white Democrats to power led to decades of effective disenfranchisement
of African Americans. Poll taxes, literacy tests and the Ku Klux Klan were
just a few of the tools Democrats used to keep new black voters away from
the voting booth.

            In 2000, African-American voters again appear to have been left outside
the electoral process. With media pundits and Jesse Jackson claiming
"effective disenfranchisement" of African Americans in south Florida, it
may be up to the courts to decide the future of the presidency.

            Regardless of the resolution of the present crisis, the lessons of the
election of 1876 must not be ignored. Historian William Leuchtenberg
characterized the resulting inactive, colorless, immobile governance of
that era "The Politics of Dead Center" because of presidential weakness and
congressional inaction. With the new Senate and House of Representatives in
a virtual tie, and lacking a clear mandate, the new president will have to
be willing to seek bipartisanship and power-sharing if another period of
gridlock and inaction is to be avoided.

Matthew Alan Redinger is an assistant professor of history at Montana State University-Billings, and a writer for the History News Service.