That One Time Oregon Decided the Presidential Election

Oregonians’ role in presidential politics has often been one of resignation. But 1876 was different.

The 2016 presidential election is slowly lurching to an end. The parties have their nominees, the vice presidents have been selected, and all that's left is to hold our noses and decide which candidate to vote for. But that's not for another three excruciating months.

Oregonians' role in presidential politics has often been one of resignation. The primary is too late to play an important part in deciding party nominees—although this year our Bernie vote provided the fond fiction of "helping put pressure on key planks of the Democratic platform!"

Oregon isn't a swing state. It hasn't cast a majority of votes for a Republican since Dutch Reagan captured 49 states in 1984. And even if it were a swing state, Oregon's seven electoral votes leave it insignificant compared to Florida (29), Ohio (18) and Pennsylvania (20).

Related: Does Oregon's Primary Even Matter?

But oddly enough, Oregon had only three electoral votes when it played its most important role in American politics. Democratic presidential nominee Samuel J. Tilden, who'd won the popular vote by 250,000 votes, needed a single electoral vote to win the presidency, and he needed Oregon Gov. La Fayette Grover to give it to him.

While the 2000 election—arguably decided by a single vote on the Supreme Court—is freshest in our minds, 1876 was the most bitterly contested election in the country's history. It had the highest voter turnout in U.S. history at nearly 82 percent. It also reached a conclusion that satisfied no one. Tilden won the popular vote but ultimately lost the electoral vote to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Just perusing books about Hayes' narrow victory (sample title: Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876) gives you a feel for it.

Roy Morris Jr. might have put it best in Fraud of the Century: "Recognizing that partisans on both sides were guilty of engaging in ethically questionable behavior and sometimes illegal activities to suppress or reduce the votes of their opponents, historians have carefully straddled the line between corrupt Republican electoral practices and violent Democratic abuses…. Even if Hayes (so the thinking goes) stole the election from Tilden, he was only stealing back what the Democrats had already stolen from him."

Setting the scene: The country was only a decade removed from the Civil War in 1876. Reconstruction had enfranchised millions of black Americans, but the Republican military governorships of unreconstructed Southern states were unpopular with a certain type of white guy. The Ku Klux Klan and other organizations were on the rise as Southern Democrats resorted to terrorism. The administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, was plagued by scandal after scandal, and his anointed presidential successor had been caught in a bribery scandal after an aide failed to "kindly burn this [incriminating] letter."

Tilden and the Democrats smelled blood in the water.

Both Tilden, New York's governor, and Hayes, Ohio's governor, went to bed on election night, Nov. 7, 1876, thinking Tilden had won. But the electoral votes in four states—Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Oregon—were called into question. Tilden had 184 electoral votes to Hayes' 165, with 20 more votes on the table from these four states. The magic number to clinch the presidency was 185.

All the electoral votes from those other three states eventually went to Hayes, making Oregon's three votes pivotal to deciding the presidency. And in an election defined by cronyism and partisanship, Oregon was perhaps the most bumbling and incompetent state of them all. The undecided election came to be known as "the Oregon muddle."

Hayes won Oregon's popular vote over Tilden by about 1,000 votes. That result was never challenged. However, only electors actually cast each state's votes for president, and there was a conflict with one of Oregon's three Republican electors.

John W. Watts had cast his vote for Hayes. Democrats questioned the Republican's constitutional eligibility, though, because Watts also held office as a Yamhill County postmaster—a public official forbidden from such service.

There had already been some dispute about Watts' eligibility going into the voting, but it didn't come under intense scrutiny until the chairman of the Democratic National Committee—the Debbie Wasserman Schultz of his day—sent a telegram to Oregon's Democratic governor, La Fayette Grover, on Nov. 15, two days after Watts resigned as postmaster.

Despite the fact the governor's job constitutionally has nothing to do with selecting electors—that's the secretary of state's job—Grover decided to personally replace Watts with a Democrat, E.A. Cronin.

For insurance, the Democrats wanted to bribe one of the other Republican electors. A Democratic operative was dispatched to Portland with a copy of The Household English Dictionary, to be used in decoding secret telegrams related to the bribe scheme.

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One such telegram: "Certificate [of elector] will be issued to a Democrat. Must purchase a Republican elector to recognize and act with Democrat and secure the vote and prevent trouble. Deposit $10,000 to my credit with Kountze Brothers, Wall Street. Answer."

The Democrats also paid $3,000 to retain the services of Republican law firm Hill, Durham and Thompson. This might have been done for reasons other than a legal defense. As Victor Rosewater wrote in The Century Magazine in 1913, a "senior partner was also the editor of the Portland 'Oregonian.'" The hope was The Oregonian "would be induced not to be too severe in criticizing the Democratic machinations."

The Democrats weren't able to make a bribe deal work. And the ardently Republican Oregonian still ran articles with headlines such as "Cronin's Outrageously Illegal Part in the Programme and how he Carried it out."

If you think this already sounds convoluted, hold onto your butts. Grover and the Oregon secretary of state, fellow Democrat Stephen Chadwick, called a private meeting of the state electoral college. The three Republican electors—the only ones who had actually voted in the election—were joined at the meeting by Cronin and two other Democrats. They locked the door, and Cronin refused to let the Republicans see the electoral certificates.

After much fighting and bellyaching, two separate documents emerged. One, signed by the original three electors, awarded three votes to Hayes. The other, signed by the three Democrats, awarded two votes to Hayes and the all-important one vote to Tilden. Grover signed the latter document, and both were sent to Washington, D.C.

In a sign that everything was aboveboard and not the least bit shady, the Democratic elector would only agree to deliver the certificate guaranteeing Tilden's presidency if Democratic campaign managers paid him $3,000 in gold.

With so much confusion, the federal government formed a special electoral commission composed of five representatives, five senators and five Supreme Court justices. Most crucially, it was made up of eight Republicans and seven Democrats, who proceeded to vote along party lines.

The commission ruled that the Democrat's certificate was invalid, despite the signature of Oregon Gov. Grover, because overseeing electors was solely the duty of the secretary of state. All three of Oregon's electoral votes went to Hayes, giving him the presidency.

Grover left the governorship for the state Senate amid vociferous criticism from the public.

Nationally, the furor and accusations of corruption and fraud were severe. The project of Reconstruction was largely abandoned out of fear of another Civil War, and the foundation of what would become Jim Crow laws began to fester in the South. And Hayes, who was routinely mocked as "Rutherfraud," would go down as a forgettable single-term president.

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