1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Electoral Commission

ELECTORAL COMMISSION, in United States history, a commission created to settle the disputed presidential election of 1876. In this election Samuel J. Tilden, the Democratic candidate, received 184 uncontested electoral votes, and Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican candidate, 163.[1] The states of Florida, Louisiana, Oregon and South Carolina, with a total of 22 votes, each sent in two sets of electoral ballots,[2] and from each of these states except Oregon one set gave the whole vote to Tilden and the other gave the whole vote to Hayes. From Oregon one set of ballots gave the three electoral votes of the state to Hayes; the other gave two votes to Hayes and one to Tilden.

The election of a president is a complex proceeding, the method being indicated partly in the Constitution, and being partly left to Congress and partly to the states. The manner of selecting the electors is left to state law; the electoral ballots are sent to the president of the Senate, who “shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all certificates, and the votes shall then be counted.” Concerning this provision many questions of vital importance arose in 1876: Did the president of the Senate count the votes, the houses being mere witnesses; or did the houses count them, the president’s duties being merely ministerial? Did counting imply the determination of what should be counted, or was it a mere arithmetical process; that is, did the Constitution itself afford a method of settling disputed returns, or was this left to legislation by Congress? Might Congress or an officer of the Senate go behind a state’s certificate and review the acts of its certifying officials? Might it go further and examine into the choice of electors? And if it had such powers, might it delegate them to a commission? As regards the procedure of Congress, it seems that, although in early years the president of the Senate not only performed or overlooked the electoral count but also exercised discretion in some matters very important in 1876, Congress early began to assert power, and, at least from 1821 onward, controlled the count, claiming complete power. The fact, however, that the Senate in 1876 was controlled by the Republicans and the House by the Democrats, lessened the chances of any harmonious settlement of these questions by Congress. The country seemed on the verge of civil war. Hence it was that by an act of the 29th of January 1877, Congress created the Electoral Commission to pass upon the contested returns, giving it “the same powers, if any” possessed by itself in the premises, the decisions to stand unless rejected by the two houses separately. The commission was composed of five Democratic and five Republican Congressmen, two justices of the Supreme Court of either party, and a fifth justice chosen by these four. As its members of the commission the Senate chose G. F. Edmunds of Vermont, O. P. Morton of Indiana, and F. T. Frelinghuysen of New Jersey (Republicans); and A. G. Thurman of Ohio and T. F. Bayard of Delaware (Democrats). The House chose Henry B. Payne of Ohio, Eppa Hunton of Virginia, and Josiah G. Abbott of Massachusetts (Democrats); and George F. Hoar of Massachusetts and James A. Garfield of Ohio (Republicans). The Republican judges were William Strong and Samuel F. Miller; the Democratic, Nathan Clifford and Stephen J. Field. These four chose as the fifteenth member Justice Joseph P. Bradley,

  1. The election of a vice-president was, of course, involved also. William A. Wheeler was the Republican candidate, and Thomas A. Hendricks the Democratic.
  2. A second set of electoral ballots had also been sent in from Vermont, where Hayes had received a popular majority vote of 24,000. As these ballots had been transmitted in an irregular manner, the president of the Senate refused to receive them, and was sustained in this action by the upper House.