Friday, February 27, 2009

Disputed Elections: Before Bush-Gore there was Hayes-Tilden

AS A HISTORY BUFF I have always enjoyed teaching those parts of my political science classes that deal with the historical development of certain aspects of the government. Until the Bush-Gore election in 2000, most of my students had never paid much attention to the Electoral College. Thus, they were always surprised by how it worked and why it was created.

Even more interesting was the student reaction to those elections where the Electoral College “misfired” and elected the popular vote loser. We would spend a bit of time discussing those elections and the one that always stood out was the 1876 Hayes-Tilden election where disputed and conflicting sets of Electoral Votes were submitted by several states causing Congress to create an Electoral Commission to determine which votes should be counted. The result was a commission that gave every disputed Electoral Vote to the popular vote loser, Rutherford B. Hays, who then won the presidency by only one Electoral Vote.

The story of that election is told in surprising detail in William Rehnquist’s Centennial Crisis; The Disputed Election of 1876. Rehnquist, of course, is the late chief justice of the United States and had a ring-side seat for the legal maneuverings of the Bush and Gore teams in 2000. The book has been out for a couple of years, but it is a good read and recommended to any history buff, like myself, especially those interested in the post Civil War era.

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