A History of Contested Presidential Elections, from Samuel Tilden to Al Gore

If either Trump or Biden refuses to concede, Robert Speel says it wouldn’t be the first time turmoil persisted for days and weeks after an election.  

Sen. John F. Kennedy speaks to supporters at Chicago Stadium four days before the 1960 election. (AP Photo)

By Robert Speel 
Penn State

As states continue to count their ballots in the 2020 election, it seems possible that Democrats and Republicans will end up in court over whether President Trump will win a second term in the White House.

President Trump has said he’s going to contest the election results – going so far as to say that he believes the election will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has a team of lawyers lined up for a legal battle.

Unprecedented changes in voting procedures due to the coronavirus pandemic have created openings for candidates to cry foul. Republicans argued earlier this year that extending deadlines to receive and count ballots will lead to confusion and fraud, while Democrats believe Republicans are actively working to disenfranchise voters.

Should either Trump or Biden refuse to concede, it wouldn’t be the first time turmoil and claims of fraud dominated the days and weeks after the elections.

The elections of 1876, 1888, 1960 and 2000 were among the most contentious in American history. In each case, the losing candidate and party dealt with the disputed results differently.

1876: Compromise at a Price

By 1876 – 11 years after the end of the Civil War – all the Confederate states had been readmitted to the Union, and Reconstruction was in full swing. The Republicans were strongest in the pro-Union areas of the North and African-American regions of the South, while Democratic support coalesced around southern whites and northern areas that had been less supportive of the Civil War. That year, Republicans nominated Ohio Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes, and Democrats chose New York Gov. Samuel Tilden.

But on Election Day, there was widespread voter intimidation against African-American Republican voters throughout the South. Three of those Southern states – Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina – had Republican-dominated election boards. In those three states, some initial results seemed to indicate Tilden victories. But due to widespread allegations of intimidation and fraud, the election boards invalidated enough votes to give the states – and their electoral votes – to Hayes. With the electoral votes from all three states, Hayes would win a 185-184 majority in the Electoral College.

A certificate of Louisiana’s electoral vote for Rutherford B. Hayes.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Competing sets of election returns and electoral votes were sent to Congress to be counted in January 1877, so Congress voted to create a bipartisan commission of 15 members of Congress and Supreme Court justices to determine how to allocate the electors from the three disputed states. Seven commissioners were to be Republican, seven were to be Democrats, and there would be one independent, Justice David Davis of Illinois.

But in a political scheme that backfired, Davis was chosen by Democrats in the Illinois state legislature to serve in the U.S. Senate. (Senators weren’t chosen by voters until 1913.) They’d hoped to win his support on the electoral commission. Instead, Davis resigned from the commission and was replaced by Republican Justice Joseph Bradley, who proceeded to join an 8-7 Republican majority that awarded all the disputed electoral votes to Hayes.

Democrats decided not to argue with that final result due to the “Compromise of 1877,” in which Republicans, in return for getting Hayes in the White House, agreed to an end to Reconstruction and military occupation of the South.

Hayes had an ineffective, one-term presidency, while the compromise ended up destroying any semblance of African-American political clout in the South. For the next century, southern legislatures, free from northern supervision, would implement laws discriminating against blacks and restricting their ability to vote.

1888: Bribing Blocks of Five

In 1888, Democratic President Grover Cleveland of New York ran for reelection against former Indiana U.S. Sen. Benjamin Harrison.

Back then, election ballots in most states were printed, distributed by political parties and cast publicly. Certain voters, known as “floaters,” were known to sell their votes to willing buyers.

Benjamin Harrison.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Harrison had appointed an Indiana lawyer, William Wade Dudley, as treasurer of the Republican National Committee. Shortly before the election, Dudley sent a letter to Republican local leaders in Indiana with promised funds and instructions for how to divide receptive voters into “blocks of five” to receive bribes in exchange for voting the Republican ticket. The instructions outlined how each Republican activist would be responsible for five of these “floaters.”

Democrats got a copy of the letter and publicized it widely in the days leading up to the election. Harrison ended up winning Indiana by only about 2,000 votes but still would have won in the Electoral College without the state.

Cleveland actually won the national popular vote by almost 100,000 votes. But he lost his home state, New York, by about 1 percent of the vote, putting Harrison over the top in the Electoral College. Cleveland’s loss in New York may have also been related to vote-buying schemes.

Cleveland did not contest the Electoral College outcome and won a rematch against Harrison four years later, becoming the only president to serve nonconsecutive terms of office. Meanwhile, the blocks-of-five scandal led to the nationwide adoption of secret ballots for voting.

1960: Did the Daley Machine Deliver?

The 1960 election pitted Republican Vice President Richard Nixon against Democratic U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy.

The popular vote was the closest of the 20th century, with Kennedy defeating Nixon by only about 100,000 votes – a less than 0.2 percent difference.

Because of that national spread – and because Kennedy officially defeated Nixon by less than 1 percent in five states (Hawaii, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico) and less than 2 percent in Texas – many Republicans cried foul. They fixated on two places in particular – southern Texas and Chicago, where a political machine led by Mayor Richard Daley allegedly churned out just enough votes to give Kennedy the state of Illinois. If Nixon had won Texas and Illinois, he would have had an Electoral College majority.

While Republican-leaning newspapers proceeded to investigate and conclude that voter fraud had occurred in both states, Nixon did not contest the results. Following the example of Cleveland in 1892, Nixon ran for president again in 1968 and won.

2000: The hanging Chads

In 2000, many states were still using the punch card ballot, a voting system created in the 1960s. Even though these ballots had a long history of machine malfunctions and missed votes, no one seemed to know or care – until all Americans suddenly realized that the outdated technology had created a problem in Florida.

Then, on Election Day, the national media discovered that a “butterfly ballot,” a punch card ballot with a design that violated Florida state law, had confused thousands of voters in Palm Beach County.

The Florida butterfly ballot confused a number of voters, who ended up voting for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan thinking they had voted for Democratic candidate Al Gore. (Wikimedia Commons)

Many who had thought they were voting for Gore unknowingly voted for another candidate or voted for two candidates. (For example, Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan received about 3,000 votes from voters who had probably intended to vote for Gore.) Gore ended up losing the state to Bush by 537 votes – and, in losing Florida, lost the election.

But ultimately, the month-long process to determine the winner of the presidential election came down to an issue of “hanging chads.”

Over 60,000 ballots in Florida, most of them on punch cards, had registered no vote for president on the punch card readers. But on many of the punch cards, the little pieces of paper that get punched out when someone votes – known as chads – were still hanging by one, two or three corners and had gone uncounted. Gore went to court to have those ballots counted by hand to try to determine voter intent, as allowed by state law.

Bush fought Gore’s request in court. While Gore won in the Florida State Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled at 10 p.m. on Dec. 12 that Congress had set a deadline of that date for states to choose electors, so there was no more time to count votes.

Gore conceded the next day.

The national drama and trauma that followed Election Day in 1876 and 2000 could be repeated this year. Of course, a lot will depend on the margins and how the candidates react.

Most eyes will be on Trump, who hasn’t said whether or not he’ll accept the result if he loses. On election night, he announced he had won before all the votes had been counted in a number of battleground states.

Robert Speel is associate professor of political science, Erie campus, Penn State.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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5 comments for “A History of Contested Presidential Elections, from Samuel Tilden to Al Gore

  1. November 5, 2020 at 16:08

    I apologize, I didn’t read the whole article in full, but I’ll come back and do it after I post this.

    If this all gets decided in the courts, get ready for some seriously troubled times on the horizon and it will happen so quick.

    But I suspect it ain’t gonna go down this way because Biden has won and Georgia is fixing to flip and good for that I suppose. Still, I personally don’t support mail in ballots. I think all voting should happen in a brief time by all who are allowed to vote. So happy for you if you were cheering for Biden because he is gonna win this election. The die has been cast.

    But as we all know, Biden ain’t nothing but the same thing as we’ve been spoon fed for so long, and to think he was in 5th place and his VP in last when they flipped the tables on Bernie. Did Bernie let the tables get flipped? Seems as so, so same difference I reckon. So here we are represented by those who only care for big money and hasn’t it been this way for so long.

    Well, guess what. The shit is fixing to change. Who needs either party because they are both the same and they both SUCK! Get ready, for some stormy weather. Get ready if you can.

    • November 5, 2020 at 16:23

      I’ll keep this simple. Here is the best way to get ready.

      1. Have NO debt. Pay off all your debts. Being debt-free is the path to freedom. (Don’t get yourself in debt….don’t get more than you need)
      2. If you can, get or live upon some property. Grow things on this property. Be self-sustaining. Teach those around you about growing things especially your children if you have any.
      3. Help out your neighbors whenever they need help. Ain’t that what it is all about?

      That is it. That is all I got. Remember – if you are debt free, then you have freedom to do as you please. We all deserve liberty, but if you are in debt, don’t expect any mercy. Sadly, that is the world we live in today, so don’t be a sucker who gets in debt to the predators who only want to suck you dry of anything of value you might of had……..we all has something to contribute is what I think.

      Time for a Constitutional Convention! Ain’t it obvious and the founders anticipated this in Article V.


  2. Dianne Marie Leonard
    November 5, 2020 at 16:05

    I think, in regards to the 2000 Florida election, it is important to at least mention the Brooks Brothers Riot that forced Miami-Dade county to stop counting votes. In Miami-Dade and another nearby county, there were over 150,000 votes left uncounted when the Supreme Court halted the vote count and handed the presidential election to Bush. Although the author does not mention the events in Florida in 2000, they resulted in what was essentially a coup, not just a “contested election.”

  3. Andrew Thomas
    November 5, 2020 at 13:58

    The USA is nothing if not exceptional. Not in the way most might think, but exceptional nonetheless. Thank you for this exceptional piece.

  4. Jeff Harrison
    November 5, 2020 at 01:56

    Donnie Murdo is going to help destroy American democracy.

Comments are closed.