Despite our identity as a democratic constitutional republic, the United States has had many election disputes that have caused unease throughout the country. In many cases, Congress had to step in and perform its rare job of settling ties in the Electoral College to decide on a president, while more recently the courts have been called in to help.
In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received the same number of votes in the Electoral College. This problem forced the House of Representatives to meet and vote to choose the winner. Instead of letting each representative vote for their preferred candidate, the state delegations consisting of all representatives from the state would cast a single vote for their state. In this case, it took multiple rounds of voting for Jefferson to win a majority of the state delegations and be declared the winner.
In 1860, Southern states outright refused to accept the victory of Abraham Lincoln in the presidential election, seeing Lincoln as a direct threat to the institution of slavery and, therefore, illegitimate in their eyes. Although American citizens were involved in previous election disputes, the reality of the conflict being born had a more direct impact on American lives than ever before – and would soon lead to war. Sides were chosen based on economic and geographic boundaries, and 1860 remains the most extreme example of a constitutional crisis that occurs when a large group of people refuses to acknowledge the winner of the presidential election.
In 1960, the presidential election between Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat John F. Kennedy was considered one of the earliest examples of a contested election based on allegations of voter fraud. Kennedy’s victory was slim, and many Republicans accused Democrats of using voter fraud to inch out a win. Nixon refused to call out any voter fraud, accepting the election results even though other Republicans had already begun recount efforts for him. The Republicans would eventually abandon most claims of voter fraud, accepting the results to avoid a potential crisis that had not occurred in so long.
Perhaps the most consequential example of a disputed presidential election would be the 2000 vote between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. The main controversy occurred in Florida, a swing state whose winner would determine the election’s outcome. At first, the media said Gore won, then that Bush won, and then refused to declare a winner even after Gore had conceded to Bush personally.
Lawsuits were filed by the Gore campaign to begin recounts in Democratic counties, which the Bush campaign fought against. Two counties did not have their recount numbers acknowledged since one county had given up, and the other submitted the vote totals past the deadline. After Bush was finally declared Florida’s winner on November 26, Gore once again fought the results, and the Supreme Court eventually had to rule against the Gore campaign’s effort to contest Florida’s results.
Other confusing ballots with punch holes not properly punched (called “hanging chads”) and the confusing “butterfly ballot” that mistakenly caused voters to vote for third-party candidate Pat Buchanan led to a huge national debate over the validity of the 2000 presidential election. To top it all off, Al Gore had won the popular vote and lost out in the Electoral College vote, which had only happened a few times before in American history.
Attitudes from the 2000 election still resonate today, with many Americans believing that a Supreme Court case may once again dictate the winner of the presidential election. Before the 2020 election, both Democrats and Republicans urged their candidates not to concede, especially with the uncertainty mass mail-in voting had brought. Fears about this election are not unwarranted, but America has a proper procedure for the peaceful transition of power that will surely be followed despite any refusals to concede before the end of the year.