I have been reading American history for 50-plus years. At times during those happy days, I was often struck by the old adage, “History repeats itself.” Each incident never follows a same set of circumstances exactly, but at times they are darn similar.
In 1876 the Civil War was over, and what was called the Reconstruction Period was coming to an end: newly-defined political parties were beginning to take form.
In the U.S. presidential election of 1876, Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes was pitted against Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. The election is remembered as one of the most contentious presidential elections in history.
The results first filed were: 185 electoral votes for Hayes and 184 for Tilden. Tilden got 50.9% of the popular vote; Hayes got 47.9%.
Although it was not disputed that Tilden outpolled Hayes in the popular vote, there were wide allegations of election fraud. After the first count, it became apparent that 20 votes from four states — Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon — were in question because each party reported that its candidate had won.
The political remanence of Reconstruction was still present in the south, but dying. Because of that, Democrats filed one set of returns, Republicans another. Facing an unprecedented constitutional crisis, the Congress passed a law on January 29, 1877, to form a 15-member Electoral Commission, which was vested with responsibility to officially certify the results. This decision was a radical change in the norms of the nation’s electoral history.
Five members were selected from each house of Congress, and they would be joined by five members of the Supreme Court. The ultimate decision after intense negotiations was to give Hayes all 20 disputed electoral votes in what was called The Compromise of 1877.
The political parties made compromises because it was apparent that the election issue had to be finalized.
In comparing that election to the 2020 Presidential election, the judiciaries in the four states did not decide the validity of the separate returns — the federal government did, and in a way that saved the nation.
The U.S. Constitution assigns to the states the right to conduct elections. But achieving election integrity goals is a two-way street: state election laws must be structured in compliance with constitutional principles also. State legislatures are not allowed to change election laws two weeks before the election by making new provisions to accommodate COVID.
After considering what happened in the 1877 situation and using it as a baseline, how should the people have reacted in response to the results of the 2020 contested election, so that the count would have been accepted with the confidence that the outcome was fairly decided?
Challenges were lodged, but state courts rejected them. Judges who were not elected decided not to investigate any possible mistakes in election law that could have occurred. The Supreme Court chose to not get involved for obvious political reasons.
Allowing the scenario to play out would have put the country on a path to heal from chaos we experienced and allow us to move on. All questions about the results should have been answered.
Today, America is faced with another opportunity to show its resourcefulness. January 6th, an isolated incident that occurred 19 months ago, is not a threat to our democracy as we are repeatedly being told. The ongoing efforts to factionalize our culture are a threat to our democracy.
National leadership is all that is needed to put January 6th behind us.
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