How Might the 1880 Election Have Gone Differently?

       Each week, the New York Times publishes an “Invitation to a Dialogue.”  On June 19, 2012, Professor Steven J. Brams of New York University proposed the idea of a national popular vote plan as a way around the Electoral College system that avoids the need for a constitutional amendment.  He points out that “as happened in 2000, and three times in the 19th century (1888, 1876, and possibly 1824), the electoral-vote winner might well be different from the popular-vote winner.”

       With the national popular vote plan suggested by Professor Brams, individual states could change their election laws to require that their electoral votes be cast for the national popular vote winner, regardless of the way the state voted.  The popular vote winner would thus be guaranteed an Electoral College victory and the drama of challenges, recounts, and outcomes decided outside the Constitutional framework would be avoided. 

       Perhaps…but consider the presidential election of 1880.  That year, Republican James A. Garfield of Ohio won 4,446,158 votes, 48.3% of all votes cast.  Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock of Pennsylvania won 4,444,260, or 48.2% of the total vote.     (Note: Various sources give different numbers, but all agree that the difference between Garfield’s vote total and Hancock’s was less than 10,000 nationwide.  The numbers provided here are from the National Archives.)  Garfield won 19 states; Hancock won 19.  It was a class red-blue election – the Republicans won every state north of the Mason-Dixon Line except New Jersey.  The Democrats won all the states of the old Confederacy, the border states, and Nevada.  California’s electoral vote was split 5 to 1 in favor of the Democrats.  James Garfield won 214 electoral votes; Hancock won 155.

Garfield-Arthur “The Union and The Constitution Forever” Portrait Handkerchief and Hancock-English Campaign Ribbon, 1880. Photos courtesy of Cornell University Library.

       In 1880, the Republicans’ victory was accepted without challenge because of the size of the Electoral College majority.  If Democrats, in response to the contested election of 1876, had induced the states that they won that year – which included New York and Indiana (fifty electoral votes between them) – to change to the national popular vote plan, the aftermath of the voting might have been very different.  An outcome that was generally recognized as conclusive could easily become a prolonged political battle like that of 1876.

Voters from Mentor, Ohio (home of James A. Garfield’s farm) gathering at Town Hall on election day, November 2, 1880 . Photo courtesy of Lake County Historical Society.

       With a popular vote majority so slim, wouldn’t the Democrats have demanded a recount?  If Democrats could find a few thousand more votes in places where they were strong, they could claim victory.  New York and Indiana, the swing states of the 1880 election, would then fall to the Democrats under the national popular vote rule, even though both were won by the Garfield ticket.  With 185 electoral votes needed for victory, Hancock would then have 205 votes, and Garfield 164.  At some point, elections must be decided; presidents must be chosen.  In a country with tens of thousands of voting precincts, voting and counting errors are inevitable, even with the best systems in place.  No two counts will ever be the same, and in close elections claims of fraud are probably inevitable.  The national popular vote system seems to invite challenges and nationwide recounts in very close elections.  The Electoral College system was designed to translate narrow or sectional election victories into convincing governing mandates, and most of the time it has worked.

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide


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