As I write this, the outcome of the General Election for president isn't yet known. Given the size of the turnout and flood of absentee ballot voting, it may be some time before all the votes are counted across the country.

That's not too unusual. It often takes several days beyond an election for every vote to get counted.

Here in Jackson County, the final results aren't made official until after the elections board goes over provisional and questionable ballots that were cast, usually on Friday following a Tuesday election. 

This year's election is the most consequential in my lifetime. The nation is bitterly divided, so much so that people are worried about violence following the election. 

America has lost much of its standing in the world and its core institutions are coming under attack. 

Nothing less than the future of our nation as a democracy is on the line in this election.

Which, of course, is what they said in 1860, too.

•••

Not all historical events are really analogous to what happens today, but the intensity of feeling apparent in 1860 must have been similar to the political partisanship and extreme rhetoric we see today.

The biggest difference is that in 1860, the nation was divided geographically into very different political spheres. We all know that Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, but did you know that his name didn't appear on ballots in 10 Southern states? 

Voting was, of course, different then. There were no predetermined ballots — candidates had organizations that printed their own ballots and those were cast at the ballot box. And there was nothing like a secret ballot system; everyone in the room knew who you voted for.

Lincoln — and the Republican Party — was so unpopular in the South that there were no organizations here to print and distribute ballots for his candidacy. So he didn't get any votes in the South during November 1860.

Southerners voted from among three other candidates in 1860. Even if the South had rallied around a single candidate, Lincoln would have still won the election.

That's because the Electoral College had most of its votes in Northern States. While Lincoln only got around 40% of the popular vote in 1860, he dominated the Electoral College results.

•••

The South was furious at Lincoln's election. He was seen as anti-slavery and the South was determined to maintain its slave-based economic and social systems. (Those who claim slavery wasn't the real cause of the Civl War are wrong. Anyone who looks at that era knows very well that the South's desire to protect slavery was indeed the main cause of the Civil War.)

Immediately after the voting was done in November 1860, local communities began to hold public meetings to debate how to respond. There was a fear that Lincoln's election would cause a slave uprising, so local towns created vigilante groups to roam the streets as ex-officio police designed to quell any slave revolts.

In Athens, a local white man expressed "free soil" sentiments (that future states should not be slave states) following the election. He was rounded up by a mob and taken to Athens city hall where he was "tried" by the mob. He apologized for having said it and the mob let him go, with the warning that any further such talk would lead to hanging.

"This is not the time or place to indulge in such remarks," said the Athens newspaper. "This community is perfectly exasperated and the next man found guilty will inevitably be hung without the intervention of judge or jury."

So much for free speech in the South in 1860.

A public meeting was also held in Athens before the end of November 1860 with people from surrounding counties. The platform that came from the meeting was that the state should withdraw from the Union and become part of a Southern confederacy.

It did and we all know how that turned out.

•••

While we don't have the regional issues in 2020 that existed in 1860, we do have that same kind of firebrand rhetoric. Some Democrats say they won't recognize Trump as a legitimate president if he's re-elected; some Republicans say they won't recognize Joe Biden if he defeats Trump.

There's been talk from Trump himself on this point, essentially saying that if he loses, it will only be because the election was "rigged" by Democrats.

Both sides are poised to litigate the outcome in the courts. Already, some lawsuits have been filed in an effort too have some ballots tossed out. 

While the nation isn't divided along geographic lines, it is divided in other ways. Minority and urban voters are largely voting Democratic. White and rural voters are largely voting Republican. The suburbs are divided and may determine the final outcome of the election.

Both sides live in bubbles with their own social media and own regular media sources. Propaganda has become so widespread, it no longer shocks me to see or hear it. Misinformation, lying and distortions dominate the atmosphere. Facts are no longer possible when people only want to hear one side of the story.

•••

While the election of 1860 led to Civil War, it wasn't because of allegations of fraud. The South simply didn't like Lincoln and thought he'd abolish slavery.

But the story was different in 1876 when a heated election was marred by violence and fraud. Republican Rutherford Hayes would eventually become president, but only after Congress intervened to sort out conflicting Electoral College results. Fraud was widespread in that election — South Carolina, for example, had 101% of voters casting a ballot. 

The political compromise of 1877 resolved that election when Democrats agreed to not contest Hayes' election (he won by one Electoral College vote) and in return, Republicans agreed to remove federal troops from the South, thus ending Reconstruction. The move allowed Southern Democrats to undo protections for Black voting rights, a movement that led to the birth of the Jim Crow South.

•••

Which points to a reality: Elections have consequences.

While Hayes isn't remembered for doing much of anything as president, the 1877 compromise which put him into office allowed the South to end voting rights of Black citizens for another 90 years. 

Elections today don't have the level of corruption and fraud that they did in 1876. But both political parties have pounced on the electoral process as their battleground to contest outcomes they don't like.

Democrats claim Republicans suppress minority voting to tip the scale in their favor. Republicans claim Democrats have illegal voting and fraud.

The result is that both sides have created doubt in the public's mind as to the legitimacy of our elections process.

For a democracy to work, the public has to have faith in its electoral system. If nobody believes the results, or believes the results were rigged, then democracy falls apart.

Whatever happens in this year's elections, it's time to restore faith in our democratic system and institutions, including our electoral process.

If we fail to do that, the damage could haunt us for generations to come.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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(1) comment

Jon Oblesen

Thanks Mike, well written.

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