Studies in American Political Development

A Most Corrupt Election: Louisiana in 1876

Ronald F. King a1
a1 Tulane University

Two lessons from the 2000 presidential election stand out in particular. The first is that rules affect results. Elections are highly organized mechanisms of citizen participation. Established rules specify who can vote, where and when they can vote, what ballot form registers their vote, and what outcome constitutes winning. Rules, moreover, determine which officials count the votes, certify the victor, and declare the election to be legitimate. The rules governing election contests are not neutral in their effects. Each variant generally tends to advantage some given set of claimants and interests; therefore, the choice among election rules is often controversial, especially when the outcome hangs in the balance. The second, related lesson is that votes intended do not necessarily equal votes cast, that votes cast do not necessarily equal votes recorded, and that votes recorded do not necessarily equal the official vote total. In each case, there is the matter of translation, part of which is technical and depends on the ballot apparatus and part of which is political and depends on the discretionary decisions of those responsible for managing the electoral process. Problems of translation do not ordinarily affect who wins, but they can – and have during certain controversial episodes of U.S. electoral history.