Examining Three Close-Call, Controversial Elections

Examining Three Close-Call, Controversial Elections
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Examining Three Close-Call, Controversial Elections
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
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Will the election of 2020 have a clear winner?  If the election is close, the parties will argue over the proper counting of absentee and mail-in ballots. Allegations will be made of voter suppression and ballot harvesting. We could have turmoil if the election is not resolved for an extended period of time. While chaotic, it would not be unprecedented. Several Presidential elections took months to decide after the election.  

The Election of 1800

In 1800 there was a rematch of the 1796 contest between John Adams of the Federalist Party and Thomas Jefferson, of the Democratic-Republican party. The campaign included slander and personal attacks on each side. Jefferson supporters said Adams was a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” In return, Adam’s followers called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Who said negative campaigning is anything new? 

In those days, each elector in the Electoral College picked two candidates for President. The one with the most votes becomes president, the second-place finisher, vice president. Adam Burr ran as a Democratic-Republican intending to serve as Jefferson’s Vice President. Seventy-three Democratic-Republican electors won. They each voted for Jefferson and Burr, following the Electoral College rules then in existence. Thus Jefferson and Burr were tied.

The Constitution states that if there is a tie, the House of Representatives picks the president. Each state receives one vote, irrespective of the size of the state. 

There were 16 states at the time, nine needed for victory. Initially, six states voted for Burr, eight for Jefferson. Two remaining state’s delegations were evenly split and did not cast a vote. Burr resisted pressure to concede the presidency to Jefferson. A stalemate. The House voted over 30 times, each time Jefferson received eight votes, one short of victory. Behind the scenes, Alexander Hamilton backed Jefferson over Burr. As described in the song “Election of 1800” from the Hamilton musical, Hamilton threw his support to Jefferson, despite their political differences. In his opinion, Jefferson had principles while Burr has\d none. On the 36th vote, held in mid-February 1801, several Federalists either abstained or voted for Jefferson. With the support of 10 states, Jefferson became president. One can certainly speculate that Burr’s hatred of Hamilton was, at least in part, fueled by this election.

The Election of 1824

By 1824, the Democratic-Republicans were the only political party in the country. The opposing Federalist party dissolved after discrediting itself by opposing the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. 

Factions developed within the Democratic-Republican party resulting in four candidates running for president: Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, William Crawford of Georgia, and Henry Clay of Kentucky. Jackson received more Electoral College and popular votes than any of the other candidates. But he fell short of the 50% majority needed to become President.

As in 1800, the election went to the House of Representatives. 13 states were needed to elect the president. Jackson and his supporters believed he should be president since he won both the popular and electoral vote. Henry Clay, Speaker of the House, who had won three states, detested Andrew Jackson. Referring to Jackson’s military record in the War of 1812, Clay wrote, “I cannot believe that killing two thousand five hundred Englishmen at New Orleans, qualifies for the various, difficult, and complicated duties of the chief magistracy.” Clay threw the support of the three states he had won to Quincy Adams, the second-place finisher. And he lobbied several other state delegations to support Adams. As a result, the House of Representatives selected Quincy Adams to be president. As you can imagine, Jackson’s supporters were angry. Jackson’s supporters were further enraged after Adams appointed Clay to be Secretary of State. They accused Adams and Clay of a “corrupt bargain” where Clay supported Adams in return for the Cabinet appointment.

Andrew Jackson and his livid supporters opposed Quincy Adams and his programs over the next four years. In 1828, there was a rematch between Adams and Jackson. In a fierce political campaign, Jackson won easily.

The Election of 1876

The election of 1876, held in the country’s centennial year, was the most controversial in our history. Post-Civil War reconstruction was winding down as Federal troops sent South to protect Civil Rights were being withdrawn. The contest featured Republican Rutherford Hayes, Civil War veteran and Governor of Ohio, facing Democrat Sam Tilden, Governor of New York. 

When the votes were tallied, Tilden won the South and several Northern states. But he was one short of an Electoral College majority. However, the votes in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida, the last remaining Southern Republican states, were in dispute. Tilden won the original vote counts in those three states, enough to make him president. However, Democrats used voter intimidation to reduce the heavily Republican Black vote, and there were reports of vote fraud. In those three States, the Republican-controlled election boards disallowed enough Democrat ballots to switch the electoral votes from Tilden to Hayes. That would make Hayes President by one electoral vote

The Republicans and Democrats in those three states certified different vote totals. They sent them to Congress, which officially counts the electoral votes. Congress ended up with two totals, one making Hayes President, the other Tilden.

The Constitution does not provide a mechanism for resolving disputed vote counts. The arguments became heated, and the military even ordered extra troops to Washington, D.C., in case of violence. 

In January 1877, Congress passed a bill setting up a bi-partisan Commission to resolve the dispute.  The Commission’s findings were to be binding unless both the Senate and the House voted against them. The Commission consisted of five members of the House, five Senators, and five Supreme Court Justices. The Republicans ended up with an 8-7 majority on this panel. At that time, the presidential inauguration occurred in early March, allowing the Commission a month to complete its work. 

During February 1877, the Commission held hearings about South Carolina’s, Louisiana’s, and Florida’s votes. In each case, the Commission awarded the ballots to the Republican Hayes by an 8-7 straight party-line vote. The House and Senate debated these results, and they were finally accepted in the middle of the night on March 2. Three days later, March 5, Hayes was sworn in as president. In what became known as the Compromise of 1877, before the final vote, talks between the parties led to Hayes withdrawing the remaining Federal troops from the South in April 1877, ending Reconstruction. 


Each of the above elections exacerbated the partisanship in the country. Now in 2020, with partisan feelings already running high, we can hope for a decisive result, whichever party wins.

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