Historically, contested presidential elections have occurred against the backdrop of intensely partisan politics and critical turning points in U.S. history. Disputed election results have consequences that impact the country for years after the results are finalized. These disputes shape our nation more than any "normal" presidential election and often move to divide the country politically and socially.
Today, America is seeing the ugly results of election disputing as many believe we are more divided as a country than ever. A history of America's election disputes may paint a clearer picture as to why this country is so divided in today's day and age.
The first contested election was in 1800 when then-Vice President Thomas Jefferson received the same number of votes as Democratic-Republican Aaron Burr. In 1800, the candidate with the most electoral college votes became president and the candidate with the second most votes became Vice President. At the time, ties were to be decided by the House of Representatives.
However, in 1800, the House, which was dominated at the time by the Federalist Party, had run its own candidate for the presidential election in incumbent John Adams. As the winner of the election was determined, "there were threats of violence and talk of the Virginia or Pennsylvania militia's marching on the capital if Jefferson wasn't elected," according to Sidney Milkis of University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.
Eventually, the 1800 election was decided by 36 ballots and Thomas Jefferson was declared President of the United States. Soon after the election of 1800, congress passed the twelfth amendment abolishing the runner-up as Vice President.
The next instance of presidential election disputes occurred in 1824 when each of the four candidates failed to collect the majority of electoral college votes. John Q. Adams, Henry Clay, William Crawford, and Andrew Jackson all failed to win a majority of electoral votes.
Ultimately, it was supporters of Henry Clay that swayed the vote to elect John Q. Adams in an agreement between Clay and Adams known as the "Corrupt Bargain." The bargain infuriated Andrew Jackson and his supporters and ultimately lead to Jackson becoming president in 1828 crediting Jackson with the creation of the modern system of two stable parties.
In the 1876 election, Democratic Governor of New York, Samuel Tilden took on Republican Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes. At the time, the parties we know today as Republican and Democrat had very different agendas.
The Democratic Party of the time more closely resembled today's Republican party. Democrats called for less federal power and intervention in the south and sought to limit the voting rights of the formerly enslaved population. Republicans, on the other hand, pushed for more federal power and the rights of black citizens via the 13th, 14, and 15th amendments.
80% of registered voters turned out for the 1876 election due to the (at the time) divisive issue of rights for former slaves and the economic crisis that resulted from the Panic of 1873.
Suppression and intimidation of republican and black voters were rampant. The Democratic Party backed paramilitary groups like the Red Shirts and White League who were an aggressive presence at polling locations and party meetings. The plan of the Democratic Party of 1876 was to prevent black citizens from voting by "intimidation, purchase, and keeping him away or as each individual may determine," according to a written document by the white supremacist group the Red Shirts.
The oppression and violence towards black voters were effective in keeping voters away from the polls. In 1907, U.S. Senator Ben Tillman of South Carolina bragged about the effectiveness of the plan saying, "we shot them...we killed them...we stuffed ballot boxes."
When Samuel Tilden, the Democratic candidate, won the popular vote he was so far ahead of his challenger Hayes that many newspapers called the election early and later had to retract their statements. The day after the election it became clear that voter fraud and intimidation threw the legitimacy of twenty electoral college votes into question. The results ultimately put Tilden at one electoral college vote short of the 185 he needed to win.
The constitution of the United States of America had no roadmap for distributing the electoral votes of a contested election. Therefore, in January of 1877, congress created a bipartisan commission of members of the House, Senate, and Supreme Court to determine election results.
After nearly four months, leaders of the Democratic and Republican party's came to an agreement after private negotiations where Hayes was declared the winner and President of the United States and the Republican party promised to remove Federal troops from the south. This deal was made outside of the constitution and law and had no input from the bipartisan commission created to determine election outcomes in disputes. After the deal was finalized, former Secretary of State Jeremiah Black was quoted saying, "never expect such a thing as an open and honest election again."
The deal that decided the 1876 election made room for Jim Crow segregation laws in the south which would last for another century. To this day, voter oppression is alive and well, and although we have a decent handle on preventing and determining voter fraud, the biggest challenge is identifying and combatting voter oppression and intimidation.
The next case of election dispute comes in 2000 when then-Texas Governor George W. Bush took on then-Vice President Al Gore in an election that came down to one state, Florida. Gore had won the popular vote by over 500,000, but the electoral college was too close to call. After first conceding to Bush, Gore retracted his concession and sent a legal team down to Florida to do a manual recount of the votes.
The recount proved difficult as many ballots were incomplete, had partially punched holes (yes, we voted by hole punch at the time), and caused Gore's legal team to do a heavy amount of guesswork as to who voted for whom.
Ultimately, in December of 2000, the Supreme Court ruled on Bush V. Gore 7-2 that recounting ballots in different ways violated the constitutions Equal Protection Clause and voted 5-4 that no constitutional recount can be held before the electoral college has officially cast their votes. The election eventually went to George W. Bush, winning Florida by 537 votes and claiming the presidency.
In our brief but long stretching history of contested elections, each dispute has been resolved and the loser has stepped aside. However, the issue of how election disputes are solved is a legal grey area. The constitution does not outline a process for disputed elections. When Trump disputed the most recent 2020 election results by state we were in uncharted territory.
Disputes in the past have come down to single states, electoral college votes, and sometimes pseudo-legal private deals between candidates. We can recount, confirm and deny voter fraud (which is not a problem the United States has in their elections despite what you may have heard) and encourage as many people to vote as possible, but at the end of the day, the greatest threat to our democracy is the oppression of voters in minority communities. The only way to uphold a true democracy is to see a rise in the number of registered voters taking part in the presidential election process and make our demographic of voters as diverse and varied as possible.
Despite a long history of deciding elections and the loser gracefully bowing out, the recent divisive nature of American politics has placed the country in a position where our government may have to make the controversial and long overdue decision of determining how to deal with contested state results of presidential elections.
The opinions on this topic are varied and many, and everyone's opinion deserves to be heard. One thing we must all agree on is that a variety of beliefs, opinions, and voter sympathy is necessary for upholding what this country sees as a true democracy.
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Mackie, T. T., Rose, R. (2016). The International Almanac of Electoral History. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan UK.
Jens Blom-Hansen, Jørgen Elklit, Søren Serritzlew, Louise Riis Villadsen, Ballot position and election results: Evidence from a natural experiment, Electoral Studies, Volume 44, 2016, Pages 172-183, ISSN 0261-3794, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.electstud.2016.06.019.
Johnston, R. J. (2014). Money and Votes: Constituency Campaign Spending and Election Results. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis.