Two on the Election
Stealing 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.
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.
The Black Electorate-2000
Black America 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 arena.
The 2000 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.
The 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 Democrats.
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.
The NAACP's 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.
Less publicized, 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.
The greatest 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.
The selection (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.
Dr. Manning 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 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally. Dr. Marable's column is also available on the Internet at www.manningmarable.net.