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.

The Democratic 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.


Compounding the 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.

The "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.

The consequences 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.

In the 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 states.


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 local cops.

Over thirty 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 literacy tests."

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.


Under no 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.



"Stealing the Election: The Compromises of 1876 and 2000" © 2001 by Manning Marable

This article first appeared in the December 2000 issue of Dr. Marable's national newspaper column, "Along the Color Line," and is reprinted by permission of the author.

Original Graphic, "Amidah 3" © 2001 by Jim Davis Rosenthal



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