6 elections in the United States that were contested (and one that ended in war)

Trump’s insinuations not to accept the election result suggest that he may challenge them. But it is not the first time that the country has faced this situation.

During the 2016 US presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump refused to commit to accepting the election results.

Similarly, in 2020, its continuing attacks on the reliability and legitimacy of the postal vote have paved the way for questioning a defeat due to electoral fraud. It has also refused to promise to abide by the 2020 results.

This has raised concern that a contested election could undermine faith in American democracy.

However, the US has a long history of contested elections . With one exception, these have not done much harm to the American political system.

Of course, the contested election of 1860 – which sparked the Civil War – occurred in a unique context. As a political scientist studying elections, I believe that if President Trump – or, less likely, Joe Biden – challenges the results, American democracy will survive.

Joe biden
Although unlikely, Joe Biden could also challenge the election result.

Legitimacy and peaceful transitions

Most of the contested elections have presented no threats to the legitimacy of the government.

Legitimacy, or the collective recognition that the government has the right to rule, is essential to a democracy.

In a legitimate system, unpopular policies are often accepted because citizens think that the government has the right to implement them. For example, a citizen may hate taxes, yet recognize that they are legal. Illegitimate systems, which are not supported by the citizenry, can collapse or fall due to a revolution .

In democracies, elections generate legitimacy because citizens contribute to the selection of leaders.

Vote count in Kenosha Wisconsin, in 2016
Strong democracies are not harmed by electoral disputes because they have rules to circumvent the situation.

In the past, contested elections have not damaged the structure of democracies so much because the rules for getting around these disputes exist and have been followed. Although politicians and citizens alike have yelled at the injustice of defeat, they have accepted to have lost.

Contested elections and continuity

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received the same number of votes from the Electoral College. Because no candidate won a clear majority of the electoral vote, the House of Representatives adhered to the Constitution and called a special session to resolve the tie by vote. They had to take 36 polls to give Jefferson the victory, which was widely accepted.

Thomas Jefferson (left) and Aaron Burr
Thomas Jefferson (left) and Aaron Burr met in the first contested US elections.

In 1824, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote against John Quincy Adams and two other candidates, but did not obtain the necessary majority from the Electoral College. Once again, the Lower House, applying a procedure in the Constitution, selected Adams as the winner over Jackson.

The 1876 election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden was contested because several of the southern states could not clearly certify a winner. This was resolved through inter-party negotiations conducted by an electoral commission established by Congress. As Hayes became president, concessions were made to the southern states that effectively ended the Reconstruction period .

The 1960 contest between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon in 1960 was riddled with allegations of fraud, and Nixon supporters aggressively lobbied for many states to recount. In the end, Nixon reluctantly accepted the decision instead of dragging the country into civil unrest during the intense Cold War tensions between the US and the Soviet Union.

Finally, in 2000, Republican candidate George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore became embroiled in a disputed vote in Florida. The Supreme Court ended a recount and Gore publicly conceded defeat , acknowledging the legitimacy of Bush’s victory by saying, “While I strongly disagree with the Court’s decision, I accept it.”

Inspection of a ballot in Florida, 2000
Contesting the Florida election in 2000 took vote inspection to ridiculous lengths.

In each case, the losing party was unhappy with the outcome of the election. But in each case, the loser accepted the legally derived outcome, and America’s democratic political system persisted.

The collapse of the system

The election of 1860 was a different story.

After Abraham Lincoln defeated three other candidates, the southern states simply refused to acknowledge the results. They considered the election of a president who did not protect slavery illegitimate and ignored the results of the election .

It was only through the deeply bloody Civil War that the United States remained intact. The dispute over the legitimacy of this election, based on the fundamental differences between the South and the North, cost 600,000 American lives.

Union Army in the United States Civil War
When the southern states deemed Abraham Lincoln’s election illegitimate, the country plunged into a bloody civil war.

What is the difference between the political collapse of 1860 and the continuity of the other imputed elections? In all cases, the citizens were politically divided and the elections were very close.

What makes 1860 stand out so clearly is that the country was divided around the ethical question of slavery and this division was along geographic lines that allowed the revolution to form. Furthermore, the Confederacy was considerably unified throughout the classes.

Although the United States is certainly divided, the distribution of political thought is much more dispersed and much more complex than the ideological cohesion of the Confederacy.

Rule of law

So history suggests that even if Trump or Biden contested the election, the result would not be catastrophic .

The Constitution is clear about what would happen: First, the president simply cannot declare an election invalid. Second, irregularities during voting could be investigated by the states, which are responsible for overseeing the integrity of their electoral processes. This seems unlikely that it would change any reported results, as voter fraud is extraordinarily rare .

The next step could be an appeal to the Supreme Court or lawsuits against the states. To override the initial selection of a state, evidence of malfeasance or voter fraud would have to be conclusively established.

US Supreme Court Building
The Supreme Court of Justice would have the last word in the resolution of an electoral dispute.

If these attempts to challenge the election fail, on the day of the inauguration, the president-elect would legally assume power. Any pending impeachment would be irrelevant after that , as the president would have full legal authority to exercise the powers of his office, and could not be deposed except through impeachment.

Although the outcome of the 2020 election is sure to leave many citizens upset, I believe the rule of law will endure. The powerful historical, social and geographical forces that produced the total collapse of 1860 are simply not present.

Alexander Cohen is Associate Professor of Political Science at Clarkson University, New York, USA.

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