Originally published in Broad + Liberty.
He wasn’t his party’s first choice. He lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College. He even vowed to drain the swamp of corruption in Washington, D.C. His name? Rutherford B. Hayes—“Rutherfraud,” to his detractors—who, in 1877, entered office after the longest contested presidential election in U.S. history.
On Monday the electoral college met across the country to formally elect Joe Biden as president in an anti-climactic conclusion to November’s drawn out presidential election. It was a brutal election year, worsened by a pandemic, urban unrest and cultural tumult. But the election, or crisis, of 1876 offers historical perspective—a reminder that political dysfunction isn’t new to our nation. At that time, the presence of federal troops in the postbellum South and when reconstruction would end was a key election issue. The presidential race had the potential to determine much about voters’ everyday lives. As a result, turnout that year was 81.8 percent—a record that has never been equaled.
On Election Day, Democrat Samuel Tilden, New York’s governor, won the popular vote—4,288,546 votes compared to Hayes’s 4,034,311. Hayes, Ohio’s governor, went to sleep that night believing he lost. But weeks of political chaos ensued as both parties fought for 20 contested Electoral College votes.
The fight began…
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