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fraud of the century

24 september 2010

The Electoral College is a serious flaw in the United States Constitution. True, it only breaks down about once every hundred years, but when it does, it makes American Presidential elections less legitimate than contests in banana republics or Balkan dictatorships. Just as serious a flaw as the Constitutional SNAFU, though, is the American system of elections in general. In an era when everything from elementary education to over-the-counter cold remedies has fallen under federal regulation, we continue to elect every official in this country, including the President, under an impossible patchwork arrangement of laws that change practically by precinct across the fifty states.

It's therefore appalling to read Roy Morris's Fraud of the Century and realize that since the result of the 1876 Presidential election was blatantly contrived by after-the-fact log-rolling, almost nothing has been done to reform the way we choose Presidents. Suffrage rights have been reformed, first by instituting universal adult suffrage (for both sexes), then by eliminating poll taxes and other Jim-Crow barriers to such suffrage, and then by redefining "adult" as age 18. But when an 18+-year-old American of either sex or any color casts a Presidential vote today, it might

The first four of these fates (adjusting 21st-century technologies to 19th-) befel many Presidential votes cast in 1876. Morris tracks these fates, particularly in the violently-contested states of South Carolina, Louisiana, and (naturally) Florida. The fear of the fifth (an election settled in the House of Representatives rather than the Electoral College) led to partisan brinksmanship in Congress, where the Republican Senate engineered the appointment of a commission to deal with the counting of electoral votes, rather than throw the election into the Democratic House.

Along the way in Morris's narrative we see the Byzantine nature of our Constitutional process. Electors were chosen state-by-state subject to the laws of each individual state (and in 1876 by voters subject to corruption and coercion, especially in the partially-Reconstructed South). They cast their votes separately in state capitals, and the Senate and its Republican president (the suddenly on-the-spot pro tem William Ferry) was charged with figuring out how to count them, lest the election devolve on a House (which would vote Democratic, though not by member but by state delegation, another impossibly recondite wrinkle), This is hard enough just to follow by the book, and it didn't go by the book.

Morris was inspired to write Fraud of the Century by the 2000 Presidential election, which met a similar but differently-resolved set of impasses. If we are amazed that nothing much was done between 1876 and 2000 to prevent a recurrence of those problems, we ought to be even more amazed that nothing has been done since 2000 to reform the system. It will happen again, sooner or later, and as in 1876 and 2000, the party that simply wants it more (and controls key political venues like the Supreme Court, which is not Constitutionally part of the process at all) will overturn the will of the people.

I learned a lot from Fraud of the Century, more than I have known in the past about how complicated the election of President Hayes turned out to be. Morris makes a persuasive case that Samuel Tilden actually won the election: it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a strong majority of Louisiana voters favored Tilden, and their eight electoral votes – actually any one of their eight electoral votes – would have given Tilden the Presidency. And I'll give Morris this, he's no bleeding heart. He throws the word "carpetbagger" around as liberally as Southerners of the 1870s did, and he doesn't assume that freedmen were any less corrupt than their white oppressors.

Hayes and his supporters pretty clearly stole the electoral votes of Louisiana, and strongarmed an indecisive contest in Florida in their direction much as Bush and Cheney would 124 years later. (Hayes probably won South Carolina fairly, but then cheated to make sure that the Democrats wouldn't cheat to get it back.) But while I now can't applaud the actions of Radical Republicans in stealing Louisiana, I have to wonder about Mississippi and Alabama. Those "redeemed" states went for Tilden, of course, as did Georgia and the rest of the former Confederacy. But they did so by disenfranchising black voters. Hayes may have stolen Louisiana "unfairly," but Tilden and his party had devised a way to steal Mississippi fairly for almost the next century. Was there ever a fair election in Mississippi till about 1976? Morris in no way an apologist for Jim Crow overall. But he is curiously silent on the larger dynamics which distorted the will of the people across the South in 1876.

Morris, Roy, Jr. Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the stolen election of 1876. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.