Electoral College of Hard Knocks

Local pundits are a-twitter over the arcane mechanics of the country's Electoral College as the Colorado legislature considers revising how the state awards its nine electoral votes in a presidential election. Some say the current proposal, which would award the state's votes to whoever gets the most popular votes nationwide (and which would only go into effect once enough other states sign on), would do away with presidential campaigns that focus on a handful of key swing states. Others say this new scheme would just allow candidates to woo major metropolitan areas on the coast. All of the hullabaloo makes you wonder: Could the electoral vote method used by measly little Colorado really make that much difference in a nationwide election?

In fact, it can—and it has.

Flashback to tumultuous presidential election of 1876.

The incumbent Republicans hoped their candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, would renew their battered reputation after the scandalous outgoing presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. Democrats were desperate for their man, Samuel J. Tilden (shown above), to help them shirk their "bloody shirt" reputation as the party of the Confederacy.

To help Tilden's cause, the Democrat-majority House fast-tracked the statehood of the Colorado territory, thinking the dusty slice of wilderness would side with the donkeys. And just to make sure the fickle whims of everyday Coloradans didn't screw things up, the Democrats let the state's nascent legislature award the state's three electoral votes —without any popular vote at all.

Bad idea.

On election day, all hell broke loose. Tilden won the popular vote but didn't win enough electoral votes, since twenty votes were contested because of alleged election tampering in Louisiana, South Carolina and (how history repeats itself) Florida. A legal crisis loomed, many whispered of a second civil war, and politicians struggled to work out a backroom deal. When the dust settled, Hayes was declared president, but with the Republicans conceding that federal troops would be withdrawn from former Confederate states, thereby terminating the original idea of the Reconstruction. Some say these developments helped birth the Jim Crow South.

All this might have been averted -- if Colorado had gone Democrat as the House had hoped, thereby giving Tilden enough electoral votes to win, contested states be damned. But that's not what happened. Republicans narrowly won control of the Colorado legislature, allowing Hayes to win the state's three electoral votes -- even though, since there was no Colorado election, he won exactly zero popular votes.

Could Colorado ever hope to cause so much electoral chaos again? We can always dream.—Joel Warner

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun