Avoiding the 1876 scenario in November
2020 has proven to be one of the most challenging years in modern American history. The United States could be in for worse if the results of the presidential election are close and contested in November. Short of a landslide for either candidate, a large percentage of the country is likely to see the result as illegitimate if their side doesn’t win.
With five weeks to go, Americans from all walks of life and the different sides of the political spectrum should think ahead and prepare to do their part to help the country avoid an 1876 scenario.
In 1876, the presidential election reopened the nation’s still healing wounds from the Civil War. Ohio Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes earned the Republican nomination. New York Gov. Samuel Tilden carried the banner for the Democrats.
Historian Richard Kreiter described the contest’s narrow outcome recently writing in the Washington Post. “Riding voter discontent with a still-sluggish economy and the Grant administration’s shameless corruption, Tilden won the popular vote and, seemingly, the electoral college,” Kreiter explains. “But when Republican officials in three Southern states — Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida — invalidated Democratic votes because of outright fraud and violent voter intimidation, Hayes seemed headed for the White House.”
The nation was on the brink of a second civil war. President Grant prepared the Army around Washington. Democrats prepared for armed conflict to install Tilden. Congress formed a bipartisan Commission to resolve the dispute by brokering a deal.
Rutherford B. Hayes would become president. But Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction. The federal government would no longer attempt to enforce Constitutional rights in the south.
In 1876, the breakdown of Constitutional order and the electoral process cost Black Americans living in the south many of the hard-earned freedoms and civil liberties that had been won during the Civil War. As a result, White Supremacy would reign in the South into the 20th century.
In 2020, it is not difficult to imagine how a bitterly contested presidential election could create similar challenges to Constitutional order and the rule of law. Passions are already high due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing protests against police brutality and racism. During the summer, civil unrest, protests, and riots have spread to cities and towns across the country.
We understand that foreign adversaries plan to interfere with our election. In August, the Intelligence Community assessed that China, Russia, and Iran are working to undermine the Democratic process. National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina warned that China was working to undermine President Trump’s reelection, Russia is denigrating former Vice President Biden, and Iran is working to undermine U.S. institutions and divide the country.
FBI Director Christopher Wray recently told Congress that “domestic violent extremists” and “homegrown violent extremists,” pose the greatest terrorism threats to the homeland. He explained that the former “are individuals who commit violent criminal acts in furtherance of ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as racial bias and anti-government sentiment.”
American lives will likely be lost if a contested election results in widespread protests, riots, and violence. In the long run, a bitterly contested election that leaves either side questioning the President’s legitimacy will lead to another four years of divisive partisanship.
What can be done with just five weeks to go?
One option is for Congress to pass emergency legislation to establish a non-partisan and bipartisan commission to oversee the election and ensure that rules are followed. Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats recently recommended this approach writing in the New York Times. The Commission’s mission would be to ensure the integrity of the democratic process and to “unambiguously reassure all Americans that their vote will be counted, that it will matter, that the people’s will expressed through their votes will not be questioned and will be respected and accepted.”
But the odds of congressional leaders coming together to pass legislation to create a bipartisan commission this late are slim, particularly given the contentious debate now unfolding about filling the new vacancy on the Supreme Court.
So the responsibility will ultimately fall to all of us to do our part to ensure that a contested election in November doesn’t result in violence or do long-term damage to American governance.
As citizens, voters, friends, neighbors, and colleagues, each of us has a responsibility to understand how the election will unfold in November.
We should study the rules for absentee balloting and how these votes will be counted. We can review federal and state laws that prevent election fraud and report any wrongdoing we see to proper authorities. We must learn and anticipate how potential recounts and legal challenges will be resolved: peacefully in courtrooms rather than violently in the public square.
Most of all, we should all understand the short and long-term consequences of repeating the 1876 scenario are not in the country’s best interest.
Garrett Johnson is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Lincoln Network.
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