Not Every U.S. Presidential Race Has Been Decided on Election Day. Here’s What to Know About America’s History of Contested ElectionsHistorians in the News
tags: elections, presidential history
In a year full of uncertainties, Election Day 2020 is one of the biggest wildcards. With an expected record number of mail-in ballots being cast in the Presidential race, it’s unclear whether a winner will be announced Election Night. Even after a winner emerges, there may be challenges to the result. And, some Americans worry, even the matter of whether Election Day will be peaceful is not a given.
But while many facets of the 2020 election, such as the role of COVID-19, are unprecedented, the U.S. does have a history of Presidential elections that took more than a vote to resolve. And while it’s a short list, it’s one that goes back to the earliest days of the Republic—and that holds lessons for today.
What’s clear from the few examples of contested elections in American history is that they occurred against the backdrop of intense partisan politics and at critical junctures in U.S. history. And, even after a winner is declared, the reverberations of such elections can last for decades: Elections have consequences, and elections in which there was a dispute over the winner have had even more significant consequences.
The Elections of 1800 and 1824
The Election of 1800 was the first Presidential election to go to the House of Representatives for resolution, after Vice President Thomas Jefferson received the same number of electoral votes as his fellow Democratic-Republican Aaron Burr.
Back then, the person who got the most votes from the states’ electors in the Electoral College would become President, and the person who got the second-most votes would be Vice President. (This is how Jefferson had been VP despite being a rival of the President’s.) In the event of a tie, the House of Representatives chose the winner, with the Congressmen voting by state. Congress, however, was dominated by the Federalist Party, which had run its own candidate in incumbent John Adams.
As this scenario played out, “there were threats of violence and talk of the Virginia or Pennsylvania militias marching on the Capitol if Jefferson wasn’t elected,” says Sidney Milkis of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, who spoke to TIME as part of a presidential-history partnership between TIME History and the Miller Center.
On both sides, the stakes for the election result were perceived to be enormous.
“Concerns about the shape of federal government went beyond issue disagreements, and became the existential crisis in which neither side recognized the other side as legitimate and feared for future of the country if the wrong side won the election,” says Robert Lieberman, co-author of Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy. “People leading up to 1800 legitimately feared something was going awry with the Democratic system and that the country was at risk of backsliding into monarchy.”
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