Election returns from the Wild West
November 8, 2016 7:25 AM   Subscribe

California became a state in 1850, and voted in the 1852, 1856, and 1860 Presidential elections before the transcontinental telegraph. Oregon became a state in 1859, so also voted in 1860. How (and when) did the rest of the country find out how they voted? Did their electoral college results get to Congress in time to be counted, and how were they sent?
posted by Huffy Puffy to Law & Government (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Not a direct answer, but I think they just made the final results known later --- don't forget, back then they also swore in the pres. and vice pres. in March, not January like we do now.
posted by easily confused at 7:44 AM on November 8, 2016

The Electoral College votes the Monday after the second Wednesday in December.

From wikipedia:
Each state's electors must complete six Certificates of Vote. Each Certificate of Vote must be signed by all of the electors and a Certificate of Ascertainment must be attached to each of the Certificates of Vote. Each Certificate of Vote must include the names of those who received an electoral vote for either the office of president or of vice president. The electors certify the Certificates of Vote and copies of the Certificates are then sent in the following fashion:
  • One is sent by registered mail to the President of the Senate (who usually is the incumbent Vice President of the United States);
  • Two are sent by registered mail to the Archivist of the United States;
  • Two are sent to the state's Secretary of State; and
  • One is sent to the chief judge of the United States district court where those electors met.
  • posted by zinon at 7:50 AM on November 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

    This newspaper on eBay dated November 12, 1852 was already declaring Pierce the winner. Granted, it's a Washington newspaper, but news must have traveled fast.
    posted by cabingirl at 8:19 AM on November 8, 2016

    Well, in 1860, they used the Pony Express!

    Granted, this seems to be getting the results TO California, but still an interesting bit of data. (~8 days after election results)

    This article on the Gold Rush era of California says it took ~40 days to get news back to the USA from California, by boat, in 1849/1850

    As for overland travel, the same article also mentions a wagon getting to California in about 140 days. A military dispatch would take a lot less time.
    posted by Jacen at 8:19 AM on November 8, 2016

    When I think about it, the results may have been dramatic enough that Pierce was declared the winner and didn't need those votes. Maybe they wouldn't know how CA voted until the Electoral College.
    posted by cabingirl at 8:24 AM on November 8, 2016

    Best answer: I have been searching through the Sacramento Daily Union, and one article prior to the 1852 election complained that they would not have enough time between the vote (on Nov. 8) and the date the electors were supposed to meet (first Wednesday in December) for the whole state to be canvassed. It also says that then only had 30-32 days to convey the ballot to Washington for it to be counted, and worried that some mishap could delay the result.

    Newspapers likely wouldn't wait for an official declaration from Washington, but would receive the electoral results from each state after they met and do the math themselves. Local telegraph lines were in operation by 1852, so news would only need to bridge local lines to spread the news more quickly than it takes to send the ballot across the country.
    posted by muddgirl at 8:30 AM on November 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

    My best Lincoln fact is that for his 1860 election, news of the election results was relayed by telegraph to St. Joe, Missouri, and thence by Pony Express to Sacramento, in a world-record 7 days and 17 hours. For his 1864 election, the news was relayed instantaneously by transcontinental telegraph all the way to CA.

    But yeah, the whole process took a little longer in those days with some time built in for communication delays. You can read accounts of early elections where it takes several days for news of the nominee to disseminate, for example, and they'll often mention what day a place voted and what day its results arrived in Washington or were printed in a major paper or whatever. Overland letter carriers -- such as the pony express, but also the US Army since it was official information -- would have been their speediest option.
    posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:34 AM on November 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

    Oh! Here's an article discussing the results in Sacramento on the 5th of December 1852. It looks like then, as of now, local newspapers did not wait for the official results to make the call.
    posted by muddgirl at 8:36 AM on November 8, 2016

    Response by poster: So it looks like Congress counted the electoral votes for 1852 on February 9, 1853. I haven't looked to see if the details are in the Congressional Record, or how the results were transmitted from California. I hadn't even considered the difficulty of getting all the results together in California.
    posted by Huffy Puffy at 9:03 AM on November 8, 2016

    Response by poster: Update: Those results got there somehow, according to the Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States.
    (But how?)
    posted by Huffy Puffy at 9:10 AM on November 8, 2016

    Best answer: In 1852 and 1856 the news arrived by steamship from San Francisco to Panama, across the Isthmus to the port of Aspinwall, and then back up by steamship.

    1852: the news left San Francisco Nov. 16, arrived New Orleans Dec. 8, published in New York Dec. 10: http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1852/12/10/87846970.html?pageNumber=1
    1856: the news left San Francisco Nov. 5, arrived at Quarantine (in Norfolk, VA?) Nov. 29th, published in New York Dec. 1: http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1856/12/01/77065381.html?pageNumber=1

    In 1860 the news arrived by Pony Express. It left San Francisco Nov. 21, reached Fort Kearney (in Nebraska) Dec. 2, and hence published in New York Dec. 3. http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1860/12/03/77905491.html?pageNumber=1
    posted by crazy with stars at 9:19 AM on November 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

    Wikipedia reminds us that there were all of eight Electoral College votes west of St. Louis in 1852 (four each for Texas and California) and Pierce won 254 to 42 ... so it wasn't necessary for those results to come in to know who won. Not unlike the time zones for tonight ... with every real nailbiter state being in EST except Nevada and Iowa. (If Arizona turns out tight, it's a Clinton by a mile, likewise Wisconsin and Colorado for Trump.)
    posted by MattD at 10:51 AM on November 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

    Response by poster: I'm not a NY Times subscriber, so I can't personally verify those links, but the New York Herald (via the Library of Congress) concurs.

    Steamship on the isthmus route it is!
    posted by Huffy Puffy at 11:14 AM on November 8, 2016

    (Also, thank you for asking this very interesting question. I learned all about California statehood in school, but I never really considered how in the heck news traveled from the East Coast to CA before.)
    posted by muddgirl at 12:00 PM on November 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

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