Analyzing and sketching some past U.S. presidential election controversies and Electoral College challenges
Published: December 31st, 2020
Oklahoma City, December 31, 2020 – Here is some Speed Dial History … Not comprehensive, but historical context in preparation for the week ahead.
The most recent presidential election cycles are not the first ones in which there was deep controversy centered around voting, voter eligibility, the processes of election, and the role of the Electoral College decisions in the various states.
Allegations of wrongdoing and fraud did not begin in this Century. Such assertions did not start with Donald Trump and Joseph Biden.
In the overview that follows, I am leaving out a trio of important and divisive elections where the popular vote was close but the Electoral College result was overwhelming. Those are: Abraham Lincoln’s first victory in 1860 (defeating three credible foes), Harry Truman’s upset plurality victory in 1948 and the Richard Nixon-Hubert Humphrey-George Wallace contest in 1968. The clarity of the Electoral results in those three is, for some analysts at least, ratification of the intended function of the Electoral College, as designed originally and amended over time.
Here are some of the other presidential election controversies over the course of U.S. History.
Let’s Start at the Very Beginning
The first really controversial election for chief executive of the United States was the first seriously contested race, a contest pitting separate camps among some seriously divided Founding Fathers.
Vice President Thomas Jefferson ran against incumbent John Adams. The two men each had served the nation’s first president, George Washington – Adams as America’s first vice president, and Jefferson as the nation’s first Secretary of State.
Close allies in the Revolutionary war days, Adams and Jefferson became bitter enemies in the course of the Washington presidency and its aftermath.
From the rivalry between Jefferson emerged America’s first political parties – Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans (forerunner of the Democratic Party), and Adams’ Federalists (forerunner of the Whigs and in a round-about way the Republican Party). The campaigns that formed the early post-Washington era in the United States were bitter.
In that election of 1796, when the original Electors in the ‘College” cast two votes, Adams won a miniscule-looking popular vote, and secured the Electoral College 71-68.
Adams became President and Jefferson Vice President under those provisions.
Process controversies soon intensified.
In 1800, as Vice President (and president of the U.S. Senate) Jefferson in one step of the process choose ‘his’ electors (from Georgia) rather than Adams’ or any of the other candidates. The record has no formal objection registered, but enemies of the Sage of Monticello included his actions in their lists of his faults.
In the end result, his victory itself created controversy that dogged him until his comfortable reelection in 1804.
To be sure, most Americans were ultimately relieved that Aaron Burr, with whom Jefferson was at one point tied in the Electoral vote, was defeated for the presidency. (Alexander Hamilton despised Burr so much that at a critical moment he broke ranks with many Federalists to support Jefferson of the Democratic-Republican Party.)
One practical outcome of the early post-Washington contests were changes in the Electoral College system (by means of the Twelfth Amendment).
Too long to summarize adequately is the 1876 election. In brief: Democratic nominee Samuel Tilden defeated Republican Rutherford B. Hayes narrowly in the popular vote, but Hayes won the Electoral College 185-184 after the “Compromise of 1877” was forged, ending the post-Civil-War era of strong federal (Republican) control of the Reconstruction South.
“Gilded Age” elections in the Nineteenth Century were highly contentious and featured clashes between partisan political “machines” in states where one party or the other exercised dominance over the election process itself.
Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote in 1888 but won the Electoral College. (Grover Cleveland became the first person to win the popular vote nationwide three times … but only won the presidency on his first and third tries, making him the Twenty-Second and Twenty-Fourth chief executive.)
The 1888 election year leading to Harrison’s one term featured one of the highest turnout of eligible registered voters in American history — 80 percent.
In 1912, Woodrow Wilson for the Democrats fell far short of a popular majority but gained an overwhelming Electoral College victory as he defeated both former President Theodore Roosevelt and incumbent Republican William Howard Taft. TR ran for the Progressive Party, much better known as the “Bullmoose” Party.
TR’s attempted return to national office fell short, but his candidacy split the Republic base asunder even as he gained the backing of voters who might otherwise have supported Wilson. TR ran a strong second (27 percent of the popular vote), but Wilson had nearly 42 percent popular support. Each of them thumped incumbent President Taft (23 percent) in the popular vote. Bottom line was Wilson’s overwhelming Electoral College win.
(Taft later returned to national office as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.)
Franklin D. Roosevelt won a total of four elections for the Democrats in the 1930s and 1940s. His third campaign in 1940 ignited fierce controversy when he broke the George Washington precedent (the self-limitation of two four-year terms). Later, the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution would make the two-term limit explicit.
In 1960, the race between Republican Richard Nixon (ending his two-term stint as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president) and Democrat John F. Kennedy. A competitive campaign included the famous (or infamous) Cook County returns. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s electoral work of a lifetime included jokes encouraging allies to “vote early, and often, the Chicago Way …”.
For many years, results in Illinois were never really considered final until the LATE RETURNS came in from Cook County (a reference to deceased Democrats who somehow managed to vote). It was the discovery of 100,000 or so “late” votes that awarded Illinois and the presidency to JFK, winning him the Electoral Vote 303-219 — and a popular vote edge of just more than 112,000.
In defeating President Gerald Ford, the Republican, in 1976, Georgia’s Democratic Governor
Jimmy Carter won a majority of the popular vote with just over 50 percent and a 297-240 edge in the Electoral College. BUT a switch of a few thousands votes in a handful of states would have elected Ford to a full term via the Electoral College.
(Trivia: The last voters in the continental U.S. in 1976 lived in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Voting machine failures resulted in LONG lines at the high rise campus precincts — students from both parties waited patiently for hours. The final votes were cast after midnight, but before dawn).
Incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush (Bush I) in 1992 lost to Bill Clinton, the Democratic governor from Arkansas. He was elected president with a plurality of the popular vote and a 370-168 margin in the Electoral College.
That year, a strong independent candidate (billionaire businessman H. Ross Perot of Texas) garnered a lot of popular votes but no Electoral votes. While many analysts gave Perot primary credit for Clinton’s victory, post-election analyses made it clear that Perot also received many otherwise Democratic votes.
For Campaign 2000, the race of Texas Governor George W. Bush’s versus Albert Gore (Clinton’s two-term vice president) is well remembered. Rare but not unprecedented history (see above) repeated itself in the 271-266 Electoral victory for the Texas Governor even though he lost the popular vote by half-a-million.
Everything that year hung on Bush II’s victory in Florida, which came as Central Time Zone returns from the Panhandle shifted the state to the Republican (gains for Bush that were eroded as Dade County votes were tabulated).
After weeks of contention, a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court put an end to the long post-election legal fight in the eponymous “Bush v. Gore” decision.
Forgotten by many today were intense-at-the-time controversies surrounding the 2004 election – in some ways a continuation of deep divisions unleashed in the 2000 result.
Bush II had a comfortable but not overwhelming popular vote win. Nonetheless some intelligent people who happen to be Democrats were (and a few remain) convinced that former Secretary of State John Kerry actually would have won the Electoral College if not for what they asserted was a process suppression of some votes in the Buckeye State.
Controversy over the election continued right up to the final and official Electoral College tally before Congress.
In January 2005, when two Democrats (one in the Senate, one in the House) objected to certification of the Ohio results. Their efforts were rebuffed, although some members avoided voting until final ratification of the Electoral results.
Throughout his two terms, George W. Bush was referenced by some Democrats and media pundits as president who was “selected, not elected” by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, and then winner of a fraudulent reelection in 2004.
2016 set the stage for 2020
Eventually the United States of America got to 2016.
And then came 2020.
A pop song that still has currency after several incarnations on the Broadway stage and in both animated and live-action cinema contained a core truth about love, but it also applies to the struggle for power.
This is a “tale as old as time” but I’ll abstain from designating the beauty or the beast in any one election.
America is a special place, and it has proved durable despite difficult circumstances.
The nation usually gets past “these things.”
But after the year 2020, who can say?
Early in the New Year 2021, multiple objections to certification of the Electoral College Results may arise in Congress.
Odds favor the Democrat, Joseph Biden, but the Republican incumbent, Donald Trump, cut short his customary Florida vacation, and returned ot the nation’s capital. Trump has advocates in Congress who have promised to rock the boat. And Trump has emboldened “Alternative Electors” in a few states.
At some point on January 6, things will get clearer. Or not.