the Election: The Compromises of 1876 and 2000
We have just
witnessed, in the United States, the massive and wholesale theft of the
presidency. Yet the fraudulent political dynamics that propelled loser George W.
Bush into the White House have happened before. A political philosopher once
observed that history always repeats itself twice-the first time as tragedy, and
the second time as farce. The seeds of the current electoral debacle are found
in the past.
Back in 1876, the
Civil War had been over for only eleven years. Black men had finally won the
right to vote, but Southern whites were vigorously attempting to regain their
power over their state legislatures. Deep sectional antagonisms still divided
the nation, with the industrial and commercial North mostly supporting
Republicans, and the White South supporting the Democrats. The Republican
presidential candidate in 1876 was Rutherford B. Hayes, the governor of Ohio.
Hayes was widely viewed as being handicapped by the governmental scandals and
corruption during the administration of two-term President Ulysses S. Grant.
challenger, Governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York, was widely favored to defeat
Hayes. In the general election in November 1876, Tilden appeared to be the
victor. He carried the national popular vote by 300,000. In the Electoral
College, Tilden won 184 votes, to only 165 votes for Hayes, with twenty disputed
electoral votes hanging in the balance. If Tilden had received only one of the
disputed electoral votes, he would have been declared the winner. Hayes needed
to win all 20 disputed electoral votes to become president.
national crisis were widespread allegations of voter fraud, especially in
Florida. There was evidence of ballot tampering, with hundreds of ballots being
destroyed or never counted. The political stalemate over who would become
president threatened to plunge the country into a second Civil War. Only several
days prior to the date set for the presidential inauguration, a deal was reached
between Republicans and Democrats.
"Compromise" of the election of 1876 actually represented a kind of
electoral coup d’etat. The Republican candidate Hayes was selected to become
president. The Federal government pulled thousands of Union troops out of the
South, where they had been stationed since the fall of the Confederacy more than
a decade earlier. The Compromise stated that the principle of states’ rights
would determine the future legal and political status of African Americans. In
the language of that era, the so-called "Negro Question" was to become
a "Southern Question." The white South was given a free hand to set
the parameters of black freedom.
of the Compromise of 1876-1877 were profound and long-lasting. A Civil Rights
Act which had been passed by Congress in 1875 was repealed in 1883. Jim Crow
segregation was soon institutionalized throughout the South. Hundreds of
thousands of African American men were purged from voters rolls, or were denied
the right to cast ballots by local police intimidation and literacy
restrictions. White vigilante violence was widely employed to suppress the black
community, as five thousand African Americans were lynched in the South over the
next four decades. The Supreme Court confirmed the racist principle of
"separate but equal" with its legal decision Plessy v. Ferguson in
1896. It would take nearly a century for black America to recover.
Now consider the
political parallels between 1876 and last year’s presidential election. Once
again, deep sectional and demographic divisions were reflected within the
national electorate. The industrial Northeast and Midwest, and the Pacific
states were heavily Democratic; the South, West, and rural America were
overwhelmingly Republican. Al Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate in
2000, had served nearly his entire adult life as a public official-first as
Congressman and Senator from Tennessee, and subsequently as Vice President. He
was, however, widely viewed as being handicapped by the scandals connected with
the two-term president then in office, Bill Clinton. George W. Bush, the
Governor of Texas, was chosen as the Republican presidential candidate, and was
largely assumed to be the favorite to win.
presidential election of 2000, most exit polls indicated that Gore had won. He
carried the national popular vote by nearly one half million votes over Bush.
Gore’s lead in the Electoral College was 267 to 246 votes, with Florida’s 25
electoral votes in dispute.
It was as if two
distinctly separate nations had voted in America in November 2000. There was a
"gender gap," as Gore received 12 percentage points more from women
that male voters. The "racial gap" was even more profound. Ninety
percent of all African-American voters supported Gore, versus a meager eight
percent endorsing Bush. About two-thirds of all Latinos and the majority of
Asian Americans voted for Gore. By contrast, white America clearly saw Bush as
its favorite son. Fifty-three percent of all whites supported Bush. More than
seventy percent of all Southern whites voted for Bush and religious
conservatives endorsed the Republicans by a four to one margin. Neither Gore nor
President Clinton, a former Governor from Arkansas, were able to carry their own
Just as in the
election of 1876, there was evidence of massive voter fraud, especially in
Florida. In Florida’s Palm Beach County, 19,000 ballots were thrown out. In
Duval County, 27,000 ballots were declared void. Over 12,000 of these discounted
votes came from only four districts that have over 90 percent African-American
voters. In some majority black precincts, over 30 percent of all votes were
actually thrown out! Thousands of African Americans who had registered and were
legally qualified to vote were not permitted to do so, because they were
erroneously listed as having been convicted of a felony. There were dozens of
documented cases of blacks going to the polls who were stopped or harassed by
percent of all African-American adult males in Florida are disenfranchised for
life, because of the anti-democratic restrictions against ex-felons. Most
Florida Republicans would like to restrict the voting rights of the other 70
percent as well. In fact, Florida State House Speaker Tom Feeney, who had
insisted that the Republican-controlled legislature should select a Bush slate
of Electors no matter who actually won the state’s popular vote, also suggested
the reinstatement of "literacy tests," the legal tool of
segregationists. Feeney stated to reporters: "Voter confusion is not a
reason for whining or crying or having a revote. It may be a reason to require
The election of
2000 was decided not by the popular will of voters, but in Washington, D.C., by
a narrow five-four conservative majority of Supreme Court justices. Chief
Justice William Rehnquist’s refusal to acknowledge evidence of blatant voter
fraud against African Americans was no surprise. Back in 1962, when Rehnquist
was a young attorney in Arizona, he led a group of Republican lawyers who
systematically challenged the right of minority voters to cast their ballots in
that state. Called "Operation Eagle Eye," Rehnquist successfully
disenfranchised hundreds of black and brown voters in Phoenix’s poor and working
class precincts. In 2000, Rehnquist supervised the disenfranchisement, in
effect, of the majority of American voters.
conditions can George W. Bush be considered the legitimate president of the
United States. The Supreme Court has certified an electoral robbery in Florida.
Gore was elected by the plurality of America’s voters, but Bush was selected by
the courts. As columnist Julianne Malveaux has quipped, perhaps instead of
saying "Hail to the Chief," we should salute the faux President with
"Hail to the Thief." History has repeated itself, and it is up to us
to challenge this "Compromise of 2000," which threatens to usher in a
new period of racial inequality.
tried its best to keep George W. Bush out of the White House. Its inability to
do so does not negate the many significant gains it achieved in the electoral
presidential election was by far the closest in terms of the Electoral College
since 1876, and the closest in terms of the popular vote since Kennedy’s narrow
margin of victory over Nixon forty years ago. Yet despite widespread reports
that voter turnout was heavy, the actual number of votes cast was about 104
million, only one million more than in 1996. Less than 51 percent of all
eligible voters cast ballots, compared to 49 percent in 1996 and 50 percent in
1988. Considering that both major parties spent more than one billion dollars in
the general election, with millions of phone calls and direct mail, the turnout
was remarkably weak. The lackluster major presidential candidates, Bush and
Gore, failed to generate any enthusiasm or deep commitment among the voters.
African-American electorate, however, was the exception to the rule. In state
after state, black turnout was stronger than anticipated, and comprised the
critical margin of difference for Gore and hundreds of Democratic candidates in
Senate, House and local races. Nationwide, a clear majority of white voters went
for Bush over Gore, 53 percent vs. 42 percent. African Americans, however, went
overwhelmingly for Gore, 90 percent vs. 8 percent. Bush’s feeble share of the
black vote was actually less than his father had received as the Republican
presidential candidate in 1992, or that Bob Dole garnered in 1996. Bush’s 2000
black vote was the lowest total received by any Republican presidential
candidate since 1964, when Barry Goldwater received only six percent.
In Florida alone,
the African-American vote jumped from 527,000 in 1996 to 952,000. In Missouri,
over 283,000 blacks voted, compared to only 106,000 four years ago.
In state after
state, African Americans were the critical margin of victory for the
Gore-Lieberman ticket. In Maryland, Bush defeated Gore among white voters by a
margin of 51 to 45 percent. But African-American turnout represented a
substantial 22 percent of Maryland’s total statewide vote. Because black
Maryland voters supported Gore by 90 percent, Gore cruised to a 17 point victory
in the state. In Michigan, the white electorate backed Bush, 51 to 46 percent,
but African Americans came out for Gore at 90 percent, giving the state to the
In Illinois, a
massive turnout of African-American voters in Chicago helped to give Gore 56
percent of the statewide total vote, and a plurality of over 600,000 votes.
National Voter Fund, and the Association’s $12 million investment in the
elections, was the principal factor behind the surge in the African-American
electorate. The NAACP financed a political "command center" with
dozens of full-time staff members and volunteers running telephone banks and a
satellite TV uplink. Thousands of black churches, community-based organizations,
and labor groups mobilized African Americans to turn out on Election Day. Jesse
Jackson’s campaigning was also critical to Gore’s success in the swing states of
Michigan and Pennsylvania.
but potentially just as important as the African-American vote, was the
electoral response by organized labor. The AFL-CIO devoted millions of dollars
to the effort to defeat Bush. In Michigan, for example, where labor households
represented roughly 30 percent of the statewide vote in 1992, the union vote
eight years later totaled 44 percent of the state’s electorate. In Pennsylvania,
union households comprised 19 percent of the statewide vote in 1992, but
increased to 26 percent of all voters last year.
tragedy of the 2000 presidential race, from the vantagepoint of the
African-American electorate, was that the black vote would have been
substantially larger, if the criminal justice policies that have been put in
place by the Clinton-Gore administration had been different. As noted by the
Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, and Human Rights Watch, over 4.2
million Americans were prohibited from voting in the 2000 presidential election,
because they were in prison or had in the past been convicted of a felony. Of
that number, more than one-third, or 1.8 million voters who are disenfranchised,
are African Americans. This represents 13 percent of all black males of voting
age in the U.S.
In Florida and
Alabama, 31 percent of all black men as of 1998 were permanently disenfranchised
because of felony convictions, many for nonviolent crimes. In New Mexico and
Iowa, one in every four African-American males is permanently disenfranchised.
In Texas, one in five black men are not allowed to vote.
(not election) of George W. Bush should not discourage African-American
leadership or institutions. More than any other Americans, we fought and died to
enjoy the right to vote. Now we must mobilize to insure that every citizen,
including prisoners and those who have been previously convicted of felonies,
can exercise their full democratic rights. The black vote is the decisive
constituency in the fight for democracy in America.
Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and the Director of the
Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia University.
"Along the Color Line" is distributed free of charge to over 350
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also available on the Internet at www.manningmarable.net.