On November 4, 1884, Democrat Grover Cleveland defeated Republican James G. Blaine ending a particularly acrimonious campaign. The outcome of the presidential race was determined by the electoral vote of New York, which Cleveland won with a plurality of just 1,047 votes. Former Senator and Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz was among those reform-minded Republicans who crossed party lines—swing votes can make the difference on election day—to support Cleveland, the first Democrat to occupy the White House after the Civil War.
In an effort to address the problem of voter fraud in presidential elections, Congress passed legislation in 1845 requiring the simultaneous selection of presidential electors in each state. Prior to the enactment of this law, states selected presidential electors on different dates. The new law stipulated that presidential electors be selected on the “Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November of the year in which they are to be appointed.” The 1848 election was the first presidential election in which Americans in every state voted on the same day.
In 1872, legislation was passed that moved election day for the House of Representatives to the same Tuesday in November. The act was amended to include Senate elections after the Seventeenth Amendment was enacted.
As early as the 1930s, Americans were already yearning for the excitement of election days past. “Politics played a big part in the life of this town years ago,” Thomaston, Connecticut, First Selectman E. R. Kaiser observed in 1938:
Campaigns were hot, and there was always a big celebration afterwards. Used to have torchlight parades, and the whole town would turn out, either to watch ‘em or to march…Each man wore a blue cape and carried a lantern on his shoulder. There were two bands in town, those days, Grilley’s band and the Clock Shop band, and they’d both turn out.
[E. R. Kaiser]. Francis Donovan, interviewer; Thomaston, Conn., December 15, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
The timeline One Hundred Years Toward Suffrage provides an overview of the women’s suffrage movement. Learn more about this movement by visiting Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848-1921, a collection consisting of 167 books, pamphlets, and other artifacts documenting the suffrage campaign.
- Search on election in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 to find more reminiscences of election day such as Charlie Stearn’s recounting of the defeat of an unpopular town clerk in “Small Town Election.”
- Search the collection African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907 on vote or suffrage to find documents pertaining to the right to vote.
- Search on election in Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives to find hundreds of photographs concerning elections and voting.
- Select the presentation Elections from the Presentations and Activities section of the Teachers Page for an overview of the history of American elections and additional resources on the subject.
- The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted African-American men the right to vote. See the entry for the Fifteenth Amendment in the Library’s Primary Documents in American History Web guide series.
- Visit the Presidential Elections, 1789 to 1920 Web guide series. These guides contain primary source materials associated with presidential elections from 1789 to 1920, including manuscripts, letters, broadsides, government documents, prints, photographs, sheet music, sound recordings, films, and newspaper articles.
- Chronicling America contains historic newspaper pages from 1789-1922. Search this site to find thousands of newspaper articles about U.S. elections from this time period.