If you are alarmed that we do not know yet whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump will be the next president, here’s a fact that may reassure you: Several presidential contests in the past have been undecided for days, weeks or, on a few occasions, even months after Election Day. Yet amid the turbulent and convoluted legal and political wranglings that followed, the United States was able to determine a winner without violence or other mass disruption.
The potential for inconclusive results in a single state or group of states is large. We shouldn’t be surprised that presidential elections have often dragged on.
Unfortunately, the fact that these episodes took place at all reveals that the U.S. political system is often less efficient and democratic than it should be when it comes to deciding who will become the mightiest person in America — and, for decades now, the world.
Blame that odd 18th-century contraption, the Electoral College. Because of it, we choose presidents through 51 separate elections rather than a simple national vote — as in nearly every other republic around the world. The majority usually does rule here, but nothing prevents a candidate who lost the popular vote from capturing the White House.
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What’s more, election laws and procedures differ state by state. So in any close contest, the potential for inconclusive results in a single state or group of states is large. We shouldn’t be surprised that presidential elections have often dragged on long after the voters have had their say.
This is a system badly in need of reform — ideally we would scrap the Electoral College in favor of letting the popular vote choose the president. But until and unless that happens, the experience of how past extended elections got resolved can provide some insight into how messy and unwieldy our current system has frequently proved to be, and how we have navigated through it nonetheless.
Take three of the most significant examples: 1824, 1876 and 2000.
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In 1824, several politicians contended for the prize, and none drew a majority in the Electoral College, though Andrew Jackson did win a plurality of the popular vote. Per the 12th Amendment, the decision fell to the House of Representatives, where John Quincy Adams emerged victorious — on Feb. 9.
Jackson raged that Adams had made a “corrupt bargain” with another candidate, Henry Clay, to appoint Clay secretary of state in exchange for the support of his friends in the House. Seeking revenge, Old Hickory’s allies organized a new party, soon to be known as the Democrats, and swept the next three presidential elections.
An even more drawn-out process occurred in 1876, when Democrat Samuel Tilden appeared to win both the popular vote and a majority in the Electoral College. But Republicans disputed the returns from three Southern states that had put the opposition candidate over the top. They had a good reason: Armed Democrats in Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina had intimidated an untold number of Black citizens from casting ballots and killed some who protested, including a state senator.
Tilden’s party countered with evidence that the GOP had issued fraudulent ballots in the same states to help its nominee, Rutherford B. Hayes. Congress, divided between the two parties, couldn’t agree on which set of returns to accept. So in January, federal lawmakers established a special commission to resolve the crisis.
In early March, just two days before the inauguration, the commission’s members awarded every electoral ballot in question to Hayes. This gave him the presidency — by just one vote. To mollify the Democrats, the new president withdrew all federal troops from state capitals in the South where they had been struggling to protect the rights of African American legislators and voters. In 1876, the defenders of white supremacy thus won by losing.
Then there was the election that more readers of this piece remember: In 2000, Al Gore and George W. Bush both claimed to have won the electoral vote in Florida — and thus the White House. What followed was five weeks of always tense, sometimes farcical court cases and hand counts of ballots. (Remember the butterfly ballot and hanging chads?) That ended when the U.S. Supreme Court essentially awarded the state to Bush on Dec. 12 by a 5-4 vote. The decision fell largely along partisan lines; all but one justice sided with the nominee of the same party as the president who had appointed him or her.
Remarkably, none of these extended contests stirred supporters on either side to take to the streets in violent protests. The losers were furious about the final results, but they issued only diatribes, not calls to arms. There was one infamous exception, but it occurred after a presidential race in which the winner was clear soon after Election Day.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the Electoral College provoked seven slave-holding states to secede from the Union before his inauguration; thus began the rapid descent into civil war. Ironically, the man who formally announced Lincoln’s election in February was the sitting vice president, John Breckinridge, who had run against him as the Southern Democrats’ candidate for president. Several months later, Breckinridge took up his new duties — as a general in the Confederate army.
This year’s contest may not end until Dec. 14, when the electors meet in their respective states and the District of Columbia to cast one ballot each for president and for vice president. There’s a small chance it could even be dragged out further. But let’s hope we learn the result long before then.
We can avoid such a drawn out period — with all the tension and legal battles that accompany it — with one change most Americans already support. Simply abolish the Electoral College.
In the future, though, we can avoid such a drawn out period — with all the tension and legal battles that accompany it — with one change most Americans already support. Simply abolish the Electoral College and inaugurate the man or woman who wins the most votes nationwide. This is hardly an impossible dream: In 1970, only a last-minute filibuster by Southern senators prevented Congress from passing a constitutional amendment to that effect.
A national popular vote would not just replace an archaic, irrational system with a scrupulously democratic one in which a vote anywhere in the nation would count as much as any other; it would also ensure that the outcome of every presidential election would be known much more quickly. Because what are the odds of a race in which hundreds of millions of ballots are cast ending up in a tie?