Throughout American history, there has been an important interplay between institutions and individuals in terms of the capacity to resolve vote-counting disputes in accordance with a basic standard of fairness and integrity. Insofar as the institutions for adjudicating these disputes have been weaker than desirable (in large part because of the oversight at the Founding, as described in the first post), the political system inevitably places greater reliance on the ethical judgments of individual politicians who play critical roles in the handling of these disputes. Conversely, to the extent that institutional improvements occur that increase the capacity for impartial adjudication of these disputes, there is correspondingly less dependence upon the particular character and virtue of individual politicians.
This dynamic has been at work since the beginning. In 1806, when the Massachusetts legislature had the authority to count ballots in the state’s gubernatorial election, the dominant party in the legislature—including Joseph Story, the future Supreme Court justice who was a member of the state’s house of representatives at the time—concocted a brazen plan to manipulate the count in order to defeat the electorate’s will and put their party’s candidate in power. But overnight leaders of the plot, including Story (at least to some extent), thought better of their nefarious plan and decided to back down.
In other instances, partisans in power had no such second thoughts and went ahead to pilfer an election through vote-counting distortions. One reason why the so-called “Bloody Eighth”—the term given to the dispute over the election for Indiana’s eighth congressional district in 1984—was so divisive, and produced such long-lasting enmity in Congress, is the perception on the part of Republicans that Democrats had abused power in just this way. If an impartial institution had existed to adjudicate the dispute, Democrats never would have been in a position to change the rules for counting ballots just as their candidate pulled ahead. But the temptation apparently was irresistible at that moment of political competition, leading to the Republican charge that Democrats breached a basic standard of fair play.