The Worst Presidential Election in U.S. History

Allegations of election fraud and corruption traditionally come after the votes are cast, but in the current election, accusations that the 2016 election is “rigged” started months before election day. It’s unlikely that a presidential election could be “fixed” by one party without the other party learning of it or being implicit in it. In fact, in the closest historical example we have of a rigged presidential election, both parties were part of the deal.

On election night, November 7, 1876, presidential candidates Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican) and Samuel Tilden (Democrat) went to bed believing Tilden had won. He had 184 electoral votes to Hayes’ 165 and needed just one more vote to win. That last vote could have come from any of four states that hadn’t yet reported results: Oregon, Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana. Each party declared its candidate the winner in all four states.

With the election undecided, the Post editors published “Three Cheers For —.” It put the best face on the situation, urged patience, assured readers that both candidates were honorable and worthy of the office, and showed support for the new president, whoever he was.

Three Cheers For —


Originally published on November 18, 1876

At the date of this writing, November 10th, when this page must be sent to press, it is known that somebody is elected President of the United States, but whether Tilden or Hayes is not fully decided, although appearances favor the former.

The fact that the election has been such a close one we believe to be a most happy one for the country. Neither party can afford to conduct the administration loosely or corruptly when its hold on power is so slight; so that in either case we may expect the incumbent to “put the best foot forward.”

The closeness of the result will also, or ought to, be a consolation to the defeated, although many will be disposed to consider it an aggravation. Let it be remembered, however, that we are all in the same boat, whoever holds the helm. The party in power cannot afford to peril the interest of the country, for their own interest are thereby placed in jeopardy. Let the defeated comfort themselves with the thought, “we can stand it if you can.” If taxes are increased, the party who increase them must pay their share, and so of other results which partisans are apt to fear.

The country may congratulate itself on the fact that either of the candidates, personally, is not only unobjectionable, but of a character that will well sustain the dignity of the Presidential office and the honor of the nation. So, then, now we lift our hats and say: three cheers for ———.

Republicans believed Democrats in the South had used force and intimidation to keep black Republican voters away from the polls and had padded the vote tallies with the Democratic ballots of nonexistent men. They created an election board that threw out enough presumably fraudulent ballots to award Hayes the electoral votes.

The Democrats created their own election board, which not only concluded that Tilden had won the presidency, but that a number of Democratic candidates who’d been defeated by Republicans, many of whom were black, had actually won.

As the stalemate continued, partisan bitterness grew, as did fear that a lengthy political battle would spark another revolt in the South. The editor of a Washington paper was arrested for encouraging Democrats to arm themselves and declaring that he was for “Tilden or blood.” President Grant quietly arranged federal troops around the entrances to Washington to block insurrectionists from entering the city. Soldiers were sent to guard the federal arsenals in South Carolina and Louisiana, where officials worried that mobs would break in and seize weapons for an uprising.

A month after the election, there was less good will and humor in the country. Post editors published “Matches in a Powder House,” denouncing the men who exploited the mob’s fears and resentments. Contrasting the U.S. with revolution-torn Mexico, they urged readers to ignore the men who spoke of taking the law into their own hands.

Violence was worse than voter fraud.

Matches in a Powder House


Originally published on December 9, 1876

The madman who would recklessly scatter matches in a powder magazine would soon be placed where his freaks would be harmless. There are crazy heads of the press just now more dangerous to community than the lunatic referred to; writers who for sensational purposes are appealing to partisan spirit already raised to the highest pitch by the exciting political contest through which the country has just passed. Pending the decision for which all are anxiously waiting as to who are the successful candidates, threats of violence, bloodshed, and civil war are covertly or openly uttered apparently with the hope of influencing the result, or at least of keeping up an excitement and profiting by it.

Unfortunately, there is too much powder lying around loosely to permit such firebrands to be scattered harmlessly. Disappointed office-seekers, men wrought up by party feeling, gamblers who have large sums staked upon the issue, desperate speculators mindful of fortunes rapidly acquired during the recent war and ready again to peril the nation to fill their pockets, and that large class of thoughtless men who are ready to rush into any tumult, are not slow to catch at such incendiary utterances.

Such words, whether thoughtlessly or maliciously uttered, should be met with the sternest indignation. This is not Mexico. The people of the United States are law-abiding. They know that for every wrong there is legal remedy; that retribution can be speedily meted out to offenders even in the highest places, by peaceful but sure methods. No wrong would be so monstrous as the kindling of civil war, and those who even indirectly lead their followers to its contemplation are guilty of a higher crime than the worst of election frauds.

The arguing continued while December came and went. As the new year dawned, the three southern states had competing governors and legislatures. Congress took action, and the House and Senate each set up a panel to investigate. The Democratic-controlled House committee found evidence of Republican corruption and awarded the election to Tilden. The Republican-controlled Senate committee found corruption by Democrats and decided Hayes had won.

To break the stalemate, the House Judiciary Committee proposed a bipartisan group to study the election results.

Just days before the March 5 inauguration, the bipartisan commission decided that Hayes had won the election, though he had not won the popular vote — but it wasn’t their decision that settled the matter. It was an arrangement worked out between the Republicans and Democrats in an unofficial, closed session: Hayes would gain the presidency without objection from the Democrats. In return, the Republicans would withdraw their support of the Republican officials elected in the three southern states and, more importantly, remove federal troops from the South, thus ending Reconstruction.

This arrangement essentially handed political power in the South back to the men who had supported secession and served the Confederacy, and hindered efforts to protect the civil rights of African Americans.