Disputed Elections Are an American Tradition

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Note: This article was first published in 2000, a week after the presidential contest went to the courts. HNN is republishing the piece in the event that the election of 2004 similarly ends in dispute, as some pundits think likely.

Some political analysts claim that without quick resolution of the current presidential election, Americans will lose all faith in the electoral process. But why rush to judgment?

The historical record shows that earlier generations, including the Founding Fathers, believed that it is not haste but the careful counting and analysis of votes that sustains political freedom. A free society must always allow its citizens the right to reasonable objection and redress in cases of illegitimate electoral procedures.

Throughout U.S. history, legislators have decreed that several months must stand between a president's election and inauguration. During this time, votes can be counted, results recorded and disseminated, and any procedural problems addressed. Now, with two months until the inauguration of our 44th president, our nation has no need to rush the electoral process. In a world of instant gratification, we may want answers right away, but fairness is more important than haste.

For more than 200 years, elections in America have been routinely disputed, a practice that protects the will of the people. It is the only insurance that citizens' intent is met.

As members of Virginia's lower House of Assembly, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson themselves"intervened" in many disputed elections. During the eighteenth century, resolving contested elections was normally the first order of business in every new term, both in Virginia and in other colonies and states. Lawmakers would hear a county's claims and then decide whether an election needed to be examined more closely or nullified and redone.

Indeed, the historical record is full of cases in which votes were resurveyed, confusing ballots reviewed, elections nullified, and voters recanvassed. Even a cursory look at legal reports from the nineteenth century reveals thousands of pages devoted to contested elections.

When elections were questioned, common sense, rather than adherence to technicality, prevailed. Long before punch cards and other modern balloting methods became available, voters wrote candidates' names on slips of paper. Misspellings and wrong initials of first names and last names were commonplace. Rather than throw out the ballots, as electoral judges in Florida have recently done, judges ruled that voters' intent had to be determined whenever possible.

Consider this report from Connecticut in 1878."Votes cast at an election for A.J.W. may be shown to have been intended for A.L.W. The fact that A.L.W. was a candidate and received a large number of votes, and that no person of the name of A.J.W. or of the same first and last names, without the middle initial, resided in the district, would be satisfactory evidence to show that the votes must have been intended for A.L.W." The judge considered voters' intent rather than nullifying their votes.

In Iowa in 1877, judges ruled that"in reviewing an election and determining its validity, the court must, if possible, give to contested ballots such a construction as will make them valid."

How do these cases relate to the current presidential election? Fully 19,000 voters in Florida's Palm Beach County had their votes disqualified because they punched two choices when selecting a presidential candidate. Although the voters are guilty of technical error, the ballot was misleading. It had punch holes next to the names of both Democratic candidates, for president and vice President.

According to precinct workers, many voters who found the ballot confusing were denied assistance. And at least one voter who mistakenly voted for Buchanan was refused a new ballot, contrary to electoral law. Thousands of other ballots with incomplete punches have not been counted because the tabulating machine couldn't read them.

According to the machine results, 11,000 people who cast ballots in Palm Beach voted for no one for President. Clearly the electoral process in West Palm Beach malfunctioned. With political pressure for a solution mounting, how might this epic dispute be best resolved? To answer that question, we need to ask how our nation's founders would have reacted. One can only suppose that they would assign twenty-first century voters at least the same rights held by voters in earlier centuries.

The time has come for both political parties to embrace the well-established tradition of electoral redress and to show respect for the voter by honoring intent. A first step would be an accurate manual recount in the presence of both partial and impartial witnesses. This would help to clarify the intent of some 30,000 voters and help to restore America's faith in the electoral process.

A second option, also supported by historical precedent, would be to give all who voted in that county the chance to recast their ballots (quickly and without advertising or interference). That would be the fairest option, since it would provide the best gauge of their intent.

If all votes statewide need to be recounted by hand for consistency, so be it. And if votes in Wisconsin and Iowa need to be recounted, so be it. Neither Washington, nor Jefferson, would have found that requirement objectionable. They would have objected, however, to any candidate who sought the presidency at the expense of the legitimacy and integrity of the democratic process.


This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.



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