Election Night 1916: With a world war looming, America goes to the polls

One hundred years ago today, Americans went to the polls to vote for the President of the United States — between the Democrat and incumbent President Woodrow Wilson and the Republican Charles Evans Hughes.

The election was held on November 7, 1916, and it’s interesting to peruse the details of the day itself and the headlines from the following days, looking for parallels to our current election.

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Like the current 2016 election, the choice back then sprouted from local political figures, pitting the former governor of New Jersey (Wilson) with the former governor of New York (Hughes).  Imagine Chris Christie running against Andrew Cuomo. (On second thought, don’t!)

Below: Hughes at a rally in New York a few days before Election Day.

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Of course, technically there was a third candidate on the ballot and one with the deepest New York roots — Theodore Roosevelt. After great entreaties by supporters, the former president was submitted as the Progressive Party candidate, only to withdraw his name late in the process to endorse Hughes.

 

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Hughes (pictured above) was a hand-picked recommendation of Charles S. Whitman, the popular New York governor who was himself re-elected that November. Hughes, who sat on the New York Supreme Court after his tenure as governor, was a popular candidate for President but he was no match for Wilson’s anti-war message. (Literally anti-war. Wilson’s slogan was “He kept us out of war.” President Wilson would eventually enter the war five months after he was elected.)

Also on voters’ minds — Mexico. Several Americans had been killed in Mexico and on the border,  and the U.S. was in the middle of a punitive attack against Pancho Villa and his militias which had begun that Spring.

Below: A political cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman from 1916

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How They Spent The Day

Voting looking quite different than it does today. In New York, there were no designated polling places and no absentee voting for non-military members. Half of today’s electorate was missing as women would not achieve the right to vote on the federal level for another few years. (However they would receive voting rights in New York in 1917.)

Secret ballots and voting machines were relatively new installations to the voting process thanks to the election reforms of the 1890s. It was still a wild and relatively imperfect process but a great improvement over the mid-19th century heyday of voter intimidation and fraud.

An election campaign car, backing incumbent Woodrow Wilson for president in 1916 in New York.
An election campaign car, backing incumbent Woodrow Wilson for president in 1916 in New York.

Of course Hughes was a Republican and at a disadvantage in New York, still considerably controlled by the Democrats and, in particular, the political machine Tammany Hall.  “Tammany leaders did not give out any figures regarding New York City, but it was asserted at Tammany Hall that Charles F. Murphy was confident that the city would roll up a big Democratic plurality, and that New York state would go Democratic.”

Hughes watched the election results from New York City that day. According to the Times, he voted “in a little laundry in Eighth Avenue between 44th and 45th Streets,” and spent the day at the Hotel Astor in Times Square (pictured below).

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Despite signs of a contentious election spilling over into altercations at the polls, the day of voting in New York City was relatively free of conflict, with people standing in long lines with “only a negligible number of arrests for disorderly conduct and other causes having been made.”

While influencers supporting specific candidates were not allowed at the polls, suffragists were certainly there, passing out flyers for their cause and in certain cases, providing poll workers with sandwiches and coffee.

How They Watched The Results

As with many celebrations, there were three gathering points of information, all near newspaper offices — Times Square, Herald Square and City Hall Park.  In midtown, people awaited a gigantic searchlight atop of the New York Times building for signs of victory. Late that evening, a red light filled the sky, and New Yorkers who were Hughes supporters began celebrating. At the Hotel Astor, the name HUGHES lit up in electric lights as thousands celebrated below.

It was a confusing time; downtown at the New York World building (pictured below), a white searchlight announced Wilson as the winner. (It would take days for results from all 48 states to come in.)

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The streets of Times Square were thick with revelers — it was comparable to New Years Eve crowds and, in fact, probably exceeded them — although this was mostly due to the fine weather and the results coming in at around the same time as the Broadway theaters let out.

Earlier in the week, city officials authorized the shutting down Times Square due subway construction but it seems people still managed to gather around the edges, looking “like the exit of the Polo Grounds after a world’s series game.”  The sounds of horns were deafening. Bonfires were set along side streets.

Below: In 1911, in front of the New York Herald building in Herald Square, crowds watch a sporting event via ‘playograph’, a hand-manipulated board. Election results were posted in a similar fashion.

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In Herald Square and in Times Square, information on election tallies was delivered via constantly updated bulletins. “[B]ulletins followed each other every few seconds as reports to The Times were telephoned over to the operators from The Times Annex, and the lofty canvas screen was within the view of probably 100,000 people down Broadway and Seventh Avenue.”

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The New York Evening World had a merry go of it, lampooning election enthusiasts on the street. The merry-makers was festively illustrated (see above and below and here for the rest). Yes Election Night used to be fun!

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Bulletins were also posted in Columbus Circle. Due to disliked results or perhaps the trauma of the crowd, one man “drop dead there early in the evening.” [source]

Adding to the chaos — a midnight subway fire in Harlem! [SUBWAY FIRE IMPERILS 2,500; SCORES OVERCOME BY SMOKE]

The Results

A map of election results which ran in the New York Times on November 8, 1916, is remarkably similar to one which might run in newspapers today. Of course, given the evolution (or de-evolution, depending on you how you choose to look at it) of American politics, the party affiliations have remarkably changed!

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In the end, as with many other elections, New York’s electoral votes went to the Republicans but New York City firmly voted for Wilson. “New York City gave Woodrow Wilson a scant plurality of 40,069 to offset the 186,930 plurality for Charles E. Hughes which the up-State counties sent down to the Bronx line. The city’s vote for Wilson was 351,539, compared with 312,386 which it gave him for President four years ago.”  [source]

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The election was not ultimately determined for a few days. The newspaper front page below is from November 10, four days after Election Day:

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Hughes supporters instantly leveled charges of fraud at their opponent but the former governor was too dignified to take the bait.  While not yet conceding on November 11, “Mr. Hughes declared that in the absence of absolutely proof of fraud no such cry should be revised to becloud the title of the next President of the United States.” [source]

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