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Richard Groves: God, please save us from a repeat of 1876 and 2020

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Rutherford  B. Hayes

Rutherford B. Hayes, then the Republican governor of Ohio, went on to win the 1876 presidential race.

Rutherford B. Hayes, Republican governor of Ohio, went to bed on the evening of Nov. 7, 1876, thinking he had lost his bid to become president of the United States.

Reverberations of that election, which is regarded as the most disputed in American history, are still being felt 145 years later.

As Election Day came to a close, Hayes’ opponent, Samuel Tilden, Democratic governor of New York, had a lead of 250,000 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 newspapers announced Tilden’s victory. Hayes told friends, “I am of the opinion that the Democrats have carried the country and elected Tilden.”

But John Reid, editor of The New York Times, saw potential victory where other supporters of Hayes were resigned to defeat: If Hayes somehow won the remaining uncertified Southern states — Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana — he would win the Electoral College by the slimmest of margins — one.

Critical to Reid’s plan was the fact that the canvassing boards which were responsible for counting votes were dominated in the three Southern states by Republicans.

Remember: This was during Reconstruction.

Reid got the national Republican chairman, Zachariah Chandler, out of bed at 3 a.m. and convinced him to send the following telegram to Republican officials in the three states: “Hayes is elected if we have carried South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. Can you hold your state? Answer immediately.”

Republicans on the canvassing boards in the three remaining states got to work throwing out Tilden votes in bulk — 13,000 against only 2,000 for Hayes in Louisiana. Hayes was certified the winner in all three states.

Infuriated, Democrats on the canvasing boards met and declared Tilden the winner.

Faced with the unimagined task of adjudicating between competing slates of electors, Congress appointed a 15-person electoral commission — eight Republicans and seven Democrats — to sort things out.

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Historian John Garrity says, “Even a Solomon would have been hardpressed to judge rightly amid the mass of rumors, lies and contradictory statements.” Alas, “the electoral commission was not composed of Solomons.”

The sorting out proceeded along strict party lines. Hayes won each of the contested Southern states 8-7, giving him 185 votes in the Electoral College to 184 for Tilden.

The country seemed ready to explode. There was a rumor that Civil War veterans from 15 states were going to march on Washington and demand that Tilden be declared president.

The issue was settled the good ol’ American way. In a series of backroom meetings — or maybe it was just one meeting — leaders from each party met and struck a deal: Democrats agreed to accept Hayes as president and Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction.

Chaos was averted, federal troops went home, America had a president and it was still two days until inauguration day.

Was Rutherford B. Hayes the president the American people wanted? Who knows.

In an effort to organize the chaos that erupted in 1876, Congress passed the Electoral Count Act, filed it away, and there it remained for 135 years, until the 2020 presidential election, which is a suitable runner-up for the title “the most disputed election in American history”: 62 lawsuits (61 of which Trump lost) and a joint session of Congress that stretched into the wee hours of Jan. 7, 2021, interrupted by a 7-hour recess as rioters rampaged through the Capitol.

Half of the country is still mad about it.

Even in Washington it was obvious that the Electoral Count Act wasn’t up to the task of organizing the way we elect our highest officials.

In July a bill (S4573) was introduced in the Senate that would clarify that the role of the president of the Senate is purely ministerial, make clear that only governors are authorized to submit certificates identifying the state’s electors, and dramatically increase the number required to raise an objection to a state’s slate of electors from two — that’s right, two — to one-fifth of the members of the House and Senate.

In a town in which a bill that is supported by 200 Democrats and two Republicans is called “bipartisan,” S4573 was introduced by Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and emerged from a group of 16 establishment senators, evenly divided, Democrat and Republican.

Will S4573 be law in 2024, and will it save us from a repeat of 1876 and 2020?

Please, dear Lord, let it be.

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