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Election Fraud & the Supreme Court: How Presidential Elections Changed the Course of America



The 2020 presidential election proved to be one of the most outlandish in modern history. With a global pandemic raging, former President Trump spent the latter half of his reelection campaign spreading misinformation about voter fraud and the legitimacy of mail-in ballots. To some who hoped this would all disappear come November 4, they were sorely mistaken as the President continued to tweet about imaginary fraud and about how the entire election is rigged. As ridiculous as 2020 was, this is not the first election cycle where the integrity of our democracy has been called into question, although it may be the most severe.


After the monumental election of 1860, following the secession of eleven southern states, the election of 1864 proved to be equally as historic. With the Civil War still raging, an exhausted President Lincoln decided to run for reelection; because his recent plan to continue the war until the Confederacy was crushed, this goal was intertwined with ending slavery in the United States. However, there was a group of anti-war Democrats, known as Copperheads, that opposed Lincoln’s decision to continue the war. Copperheads sought peace with the South and wanted the conflict to have a swift end and were willing to negotiate with the rebel government. Running opposed to Lincoln was former Union general George B. McClellan, who had gained some notoriety after the Battle of Antietam and his subsequent removal from his post after the heavy casualties the Union incurred. For those who opposed Lincoln, McClellan was a candidate they could support as the former general had already established himself as a Washington outsider who did not trust politicians.[1] Some believed he could potentially be the man to end the war, a prospect that was especially enticing to the Copperheads and anti-war Democrats.


During the fall of 1864, a pro-Lincoln New York merchant named Orville Wood discovered “the most elaborate election conspiracy in America’s brief history.”[2] As Union and Confederate soldiers continued to clash during the election cycle, legislators were worried about soldiers’ votes being counted with the ongoing conflict. New York lawmakers had only established their mail-in voting system earlier that year in April, and some anti-Lincoln men had already found a way to exploit this system. Wood was sent to oversee the counting of mail-in votes by Union soldiers stationed at Fort McHenry in Baltimore when he came into contact with Moses Ferry. Ferry was also tasked with overseeing the mail-in votes by New York governor Horatio Seymour, but Ferry had different intentions in mind. Upon arriving, Wood was warned by numerous soldiers about Ferry’s attempts to forge votes to support McClellan, and decided to assume the role of a McClellan supporter to try and discover the source of the fraudulent votes. After Wood and Ferry met, Wood came to the realization that Ferry and at least 20 other co-conspirators had been forging votes in support of McClellan in Baltimore and Washington D.C.[3]

Ferry had established an elaborate plot to forge mail-in votes from wounded, sick, and even dead Union soldiers from New York in an attempt to swing the state in favor of McClellan. The plot even extended to his home state, with Ferry receiving aid from anti-Lincoln legislators, military officers, and law enforcement.[4] Albany Sheriff H. Cromdell, was aiding Ferry from New York with a letter offering even more support, “It is unnecessary to say that all here have entire confidence in your skill and abetting, and hope you like your help.”[5] However, the plot was foiled when Wood revealed all that he had seen to the authorities, with numerous arrests being made after the fraud had been discovered. As the conspirators were brought to trial, the idea that American citizens would try to rig the election was a shock to the general public as the outcome of the election was still unknown. After the first day of the trial, a reporter for the New York Times wrote that the forged votes, “if unexposed might have subverted the honest will of the people and left the state and the nation at the mercy of those who would make peace with rebellion and fellowship with traitors.”[6] While these Copperheads failed in their attempt to subvert democracy and deny Lincoln a second term, their plot to forge votes cast doubt on the election, with anti-abolitionist newspapers attacking the legitimacy of Lincoln’s electoral win. Thankfully, Lincoln’s reelection meant that he could approve the judge’s recommendation that Ferry and his co-conspirators be jailed for life.


There might not have been any voter fraud that historians know of in the 1876 Presidential election, but there were some controversial deals made even after all of the ballots were counted. At the end of President Grant’s second term, the South was still recovering from the Civil War, with Reconstruction policies allowing the enfranchisement of former slaves across the nation which the former rebel states continued to fight against. The two nominees for President were Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden of New York. Tilden would go on to win the popular vote by over 200,000 votes but fall short of the electoral majority needed to win by just one vote.[7] The Constitution provided no solution for the stalemate, with election results in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina being disputed as well. It was up to Congress to act, establishing a bipartisan commission composed of five senators, five representatives, and five Supreme Court justices.[8] This commission, through backdoor deals and political favors, would ultimately declare Hayes the winner. However, his ascension to the Presidency was not without unsavory compromises.


The Democrats decided they would throw their support behind Hayes as long as he agreed to their terms, including an end to military occupation in the South, a deathblow to Reconstruction and its policies. Forevermore known as “Rutherfraud,” Hayes was handed the win with his promise to allow southerners to return to home rule, meaning white Democrats were allowed to return to discriminating against African Americans and establishing strict segregationist policies.[9] The committee responsible for deciding the winner of the election ultimately subverted the will of the American people; although Tilden won the popular vote, the not-so-bipartisan committee’s decision to hand Hayes the election would have dire consequences for Reconstruction.


1876 was not the first nor the last time the winner of the election lost the popular vote, but the most infamous of instances has to be the presidential election of 2000. The election was between Texas governor, George W. Bush, and the incumbent vice president, Al Gore of Tennessee. Historian Jill Lepore notes that the election “was by no means clear that the voters had decided the outcome,” adding, “the two most dautingly powerful forces on the battleground of American politics – cable television and the Supreme Court – made the first and eventually the final call.”[10] The election would prove to be an unconventional one when on the night of Election Day, multiple news networks called the election in favor of Gore, announcing that he had reached the electoral majority by winning Florida in an extremely close vote. However, later that night Fox News would counter these predictions, instead calling the election for Bush. The idea of cable networks being the primary source of election results and announcing wins is a modern invention. This problem has resurfaced during the election cycle this year, with multiple conservative figures reprimanding networks by saying they are not the ones who get to decide the election. In 2000, these figures would have been right, as the election would end up being taken to the Supreme Court.


After Fox News called the election for Bush, multiple other news networks followed suit, with Gore accepting the results and conceding early in the morning following Election Day; but Gore soon learned about the contested vote counts in Florida, demanded a recount, and called Governor Bush to un-concede from the race.[11] Gore had won the popular vote by over 500,000 vallots, but for the next thirty six days the entire election hung in the balance as votes were recounted in the battleground state of Florida. On December 12, the Supreme Court delivered a disastrous 5-4 decision calling off the recount, finally handing the election to Bush.[12] This decision was unprecedented, as the highest court in the United States had never before had to intervene in a presidential election. The Court’s decision meant that the recount would come to a halt, meaning the true winner of the 2000 election may be lost to history forever.


As the United States continues to grapple with the outcomes of the historic 2020 presidential election, the nation’s future almost feels uncertain. When the outgoing president continually spreads misinformation, plants seeds of distrust in our democracy, and refuses to accept the will of the American people, the consequences of his actions could be disastrous. While the Constitution does not require a formal concession, this is the first time in American history where the President has not only refused to concede, but also called the results into question. The fallout from President Trump’s actions are still being dealt with, while his supporters called for votes to stop being counted in Michigan, other groups of his supporters confusingly also chanted for all votes to be counted in Arizona. President-elect Biden has maintained a collected demeanor throughout the chaos, but the weeks until January 21, 2021 will certainly be a tumultuous time for our nation as we grapple with the fallout of this historic election.

[1] History.com, “General George McClellan snubs President Lincoln,” November 13, 2009, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/mcclellan-snubs-lincoln. [2] Dustin Waters, “Mail ballots played role in plot to deny Lincoln reelection,” The Washington Post, August 22, 2020. [3] Waters, The Washington Post, 2020. [4] Waters, The Washington Post, 2020. [5] Waters, The Washington Post, 2020. [6] Waters, The Washington Post, 2020. [7] Sarah Pruitt, History.com, “How the 1876 Election Tested the Constitution and Effectively Ended Reconstruction,” January 21, 2020, https://www.history.com/news/reconstruction-1876-election-rutherford-hayes. [8] Pruitt, History.com. [9] Jill Lepore, These Truths: a History of the United States (New York: Norton & Company, 2018), 329-330. [10] Lepore, These Truths, 716. [11] Lepore, These Truths, 716. [12] Lepore, These Truths, 717.

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