When Elections Go Wrong

by Scott Wagner

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Say the word “coup” in the context of US history, and one thinks of rampant Cold War imperialism, CIA-backed thugs, and oft-unstable developing countries torn apart by US intervention. Coups are events that happen in other countries; surely they cannot happen here, in one of the world’s oldest, most stable democracies?

Yet tensions are running high this November. President Trump has repeatedly suggested that he will not leave office if he loses reelection. When directly asked if he would commit to a peaceful transition of power in September, Trump responded, “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens.” He openly speculates that the Supreme Court—to which he’s nominated three justices—will award him an electoral victory if disputed election results make their way to America’s highest court. In today’s environment of hyper-partisanship, political tribalism, and disinformation, Trump’s noncommittal statements undermine faith in the electoral process and trust in American democracy writ large. Grassroots organizing groups on the left are already organizing rallies for the day after the election should Trump preemptively declare victory or refuse to abide by the results.

From Trump’s flirtation with authoritarianism, to the ongoing—and newly escalating—COVID-19 pandemic, to the drastic increase in absentee and mail-in balloting, much of the 2020 election falls into the realm of the unprecedented. A contested or controversial result, however, would not be the first; five different US presidential elections have produced political disputes that threatened to shatter domestic tranquility and throw the American democratic experiment into disarray. Election disputes occur for one of three reasons: 1) the election returns themselves are disputed (in other words, the vote is so close that it’s unclear who actually won); 2) the means by which an election can be decided are unclear or untrustworthy; or 3) one party views the other as so totally abhorrent than no electoral defeat can be accepted as legitimate. Troublingly for the United States, elements of all three are present in the election of 2020.

Pregnant Chads and Pregnant Pauses

Think of a football match. If one team drubs the other 6-0, one somewhat suspect offsides call isn’t going to rile up the passions of either fanbase. But what if that same offsides call happens in a 0-0 game, with the Champions League title on the line? Suddenly you have a whole slew of furious partisans braying for blood. Such is the case with elections; in close-run races, every vote comes under tighter scrutiny. And there have arguably been no closer races in US presidential history than the election of 2000. Al Gore liked to quip that he was “so boring, his Secret Service code name is Al Gore.” Despite his supposed stoniness, Gore was in a strong position approaching the election of 2000.

Eight years of Democratic control had spawned a strong economy and a stable foreign policy, and as Bill Clinton’s vice president, Gore could claim some responsibility for the halcyon days of the 1990s. Yet the presidential race between Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush was a dead heat for much of the summer and autumn of 2000. The race remained close on Election Day—so close, in fact, that whichever candidate won the state of Florida would win a majority of the Electoral College and thus the presidency.

That’s where the trouble started. Early in the night, news networks—including the ever-reliable Associated Press—called the state for Gore based on exit polls. But as more returns came in, the networks rescinded their projection and later called the state for Bush. Gore contacted his rival to concede the election, only to rescind his concession an hour later as Florida remained too close to call. When Americans woke up the morning after the election, they still didn’t know who their next president would be.

Like flies to honey, partisan attorneys swarmed the state. Democratic lawyers demanded a recount; Republican lawyers cried foul. Central to the dispute were the punch-card ballots used by some Florida counties. Voters were supposed to punch a hole through the ballot to designate their preferred candidate, but some ballots were only partially punctured, leaving “hanging chads” that complicated the recount process. Democrats suspected partisan chicanery; Jeb Bush, brother of George W., was the governor of Florida, and the Florida Secretary of State—the official in charge of certifying the election results—was the co-chair of Bush’s Florida campaign.

The Supreme Court had to step in and resolve the issue. In a 5-4 decision—made on strict party lines—they nixed the possibility of alternative recount methods in Florida, effectively solidifying the electoral results. Bush won the state of Florida by just 537 votes and lost the nationwide popular vote by half a million, but he was inaugurated as the 43rd President of the United States.

A man counts a controversial Florida ballot, and voters protest in DC after the 2000 election. State Library & Archives of Florida (left) and Elvert Barnes (right)

While hanging chads are mercifully a thing of the past, disputes surrounding legitimate ballots are sadly all too commonplace. With the COVID-19 pandemic spiking across the country, more voters are exploring alternative voting methods including absentee voting, mail-in voting, and early voting to avoid risking possible exposure to the coronavirus. Vote-by-mail is reliable and secure, yet Donald Trump has repeatedly and incorrectly attacked it as fraudulent, inciting a slew of scurrilous lawsuits from GOP organizations. Operatives in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania want to discard mail-in ballots received after Election Day. One petition in Harris County, Texas sought to have 127,000 drive-through ballots invalidated as unconstitutional; it was rejected by a federal judge. By attacking the validity of alternative voting methods, Trump is laying the groundwork for a potential election dispute, even promising that “as soon as that election is over, we’re going in with our lawyers.” If the race appears close on election night, expect all manner of fulminations and fireworks from the Trump campaign.

Forging the “Corrupt Bargains”

Continuing the sports-to-elections metaphor: In football, there are agreed-upon contingencies in the event of a draw. In most cases, teams will play two additional 15-minute halves before resorting to penalty kicks. Those resolutions often aren’t satisfying for supporters—who likes to see a hard-fought match end in the Russian roulette of penalties?—but they do offer agreed-upon methods for identifying a winner and a loser.

In the event that no candidate receives a majority of Electoral College votes, the US Constitution stipulates that “the House of Representatives shall immediately choose by Ballot one of them for President.” The last time that happened was in 1824, when four candidates—all nominally from the same party—contested the presidency. The contest took on a regional timbre, with John Quincy Adams dominating the old Federalist stronghold of New England and Andrew Jackson running strong in the frontier states and the new Southwest. Speaker of the House Henry Clay was popular in his home state of Kentucky and the regions around the Ohio River Valley, while Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford was the preferred candidate in the Southeast.

The election of 1824 was a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. Jackson won a plurality in both the popular vote and the Electoral College but failed to achieve a majority. The election went to the House, where Clay wielded considerable influence. Clay detested Jackson, later describing the Tennessean as “ignorant, passionate, hypocritical, corrupt, and easily swayed by the basest men who surrounded him,” and felt Adams was more amenable to Clay’s legislative initiatives like the American System. Clay’s machinations helped sway the election to Adams, who won the House vote by a single state. Jackson railed against the decision, claiming that Clay had struck a “corrupt bargain” with Adams, but he had no legal recourse to challenge the result. Instead, he spent the next four years organizing a populist political network that helped him storm to victory in 1828 over the incumbent Adams.

John Lewis Krimmel’s “Independence Day Celebration in Centre Square, Philadelphia,” 1819. The contested election of 1824 put an end to the “era of good feelings,” a relatively stable period of economic growth and one-party rule.

If the election of 1824 was “corrupt,” the election of 1876 was positively fraudulent. In the first competitive election after the Civil War, the Democrats under Samuel Tilden seemed well-positioned to retake the White House for the first since 1860. After a nasty campaign plagued by partisan insults and spurious accusations, early returns suggested that Tilden had defeated the Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes—Hayes even went to bed believing that he had lost the election, writing in his diary that “the affair seemed over.”

It was far from over. Republicans disputed the returns in three Southern states—Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. In those states—and across the former Confederacy—white supremacist groups like the White League launched widespread voter intimidation campaigns. Their explicit goal was to dissuade Black voters—who were decidedly Republican—from partaking in their constitutional right to vote. Without the three Southern states, Tilden fell one vote short of an Electoral College majority.

While the Constitution has prescriptions for solving a tie in the Electoral College, it had no recommendations for resolving disputed electoral votes. With Congress divided, the two parties compromised by creating a bipartisan electoral commission made up of five Representatives, five Senators, and five Justices. The commission would include seven members of each party and one independent—Supreme Court Justice David Davis. Even those plans fell victim to oafish political intrigue. Democrats in the Illinois State Legislature tried to earn Davis’ goodwill by electing him to the Illinois Senate seat. Davis resigned from the electoral commission in order to accept the Senate seat; he was replaced by Republican Justice Joseph P. Bradley. Instead of securing a favorable ear on the commission, the Democrats sabotaged their best chance at the presidency. The electoral commission voted along straight party lines 8-7 to award the presidency to Hayes.

“A truce—not a compromise, but a chance for high-toned gentlemen to retire gracefully from their very civil declarations of war.” Illustration by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly, 1877. Library of Congress

Democrats in 1876 complained that the electoral commission was illegitimate and complicit in a second “corrupt bargain.” Democrats in 2020 have similar fears about the current Supreme Court. By launching legal challenges against alternative voting methods and spreading doubt about the legitimacy of the election, Trump hopes to force the contest into the chambers of the Supreme Court, where he has a decided advantage. The conservatives currently hold an imposing 6-3 majority on the highest judicial body in the United States; Trump himself has appointed three justices to the bench. Democrats already view two of those justices—Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett—as illegitimate. If the election goes to the Supreme Court, and the body rules in Trump’s favor, Democrats will view the decision as nothing short of a blatant judicial power grab.

The fate of the American republic may depend on cooler heads prevailing. In 1876, Tilden responded to the electoral commission’s decision with resignation, calmly stating that the defeat “is what I expected.” His comments put an end to rumblings of further electoral disputes or renewed internecine conflict. In 2000, after the Supreme Court ruled in Bush’s favor, Gore issued a statement offering his concession and calling on his supporters “to unite behind our next president.” When hot-tempered radicals control the conversation, however, disputed elections can spark tempestuous disagreements and even political violence.

“A Civil War Was Expected”

Losing the Champions League final is depressing. Losing it in penalties is a bitter pill to swallow. But losing it to your most-hated rival? Some things are unforgivable—and unacceptable.

The same holds true for elections. Democrats and Republicans rarely see eye-to-eye, and elections always possess a certain amount of rancor. Sometimes, though, the two parties disagree so fundamentally on the issues of the day that any victory for the opposing side is seen as illegitimate.

One such instance occurred during the Adams Administration (1797-1801), when the republic was still in its infancy. Thomas Jefferson, the figurehead of the Democratic-Republicans, described the Adams presidency as a “reign of witches.” He believed that by supporting Great Britain instead of France and by expanding federal power over civil liberties through the Alien and Sedition Acts, Adams was betraying the republican values of the United States and returning the nation to monarchy and despotism. Jefferson largely refrained from personal attacks, but Republican surrogates gleefully excoriated the sitting president; editorialist James Callender even claimed Adams had a “hideous hermaphroditical character.” The Federalist Party of Adams, in turn, lambasted Jefferson and the Republicans for their supposedly radical views, calling Jefferson a “howling atheist” and condemning his praise of the tumultuous French Revolution. The very fate of the American republic seemed to be at stake as the nation prepared to vote in 1800.

1801 banner celebrating Jefferson’s victory over Adams in the 1800 election. Global Public Affairs Archive

At the time, electors in the Electoral College did not cast separate votes for president and vice president. Each elector cast two ballots for president; whoever received the most votes would take office, while the runner-up would become vice president. The Republican electors faithfully voted for their two candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. They hewed to the party line perhaps too faithfully; the electoral returns showed that the Republicans had won a narrow victory over the Federalists—but Jefferson and Burr both received 73 electoral votes. The presidential race had ended in a tie.

The Constitution accounted for such an eventuality: the House of Representatives would decide the election, with each state delegation getting one vote. Burr seemed to concede, writing to Jefferson that he would “support your administration with unremitted Zeal.” But when the Federalists suggested that they would back Burr over Jefferson, Burr reversed course. The race was deadlocked. The eight Republican states backed Jefferson; the six Federalist states backed Burr; and the two divided states cast uncommitted ballots, leaving Jefferson tantalizingly short of a majority. Eighteen votes later, and the results were the same. The House could not decide.

Confusion was the order of the day. If the House could not choose a candidate before Inauguration Day, would the country continue on without a president until a new vote could be held? Or would the failure to decide between the two Republicans shatter the young nation? Partisan newspapers crowed that militias representing both factions were mobilizing for conflict. Jefferson warned Adams that congressional obstruction “would probably produce resistance by force & incalculable consequences;” Adams too feared that “a civil war was expected.” In the high-stakes stare-down, the Federalists blinked first. On the 36th vote, James Bayard, the lone representative from Delaware, abstained; with only 15 ballots cast, Jefferson had secured his coveted majority. The Union had been saved, Jefferson later wrote, “by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people.”

It would not survive the next challenge. By 1860, the issue of slavery had become intractable. It had split the nation into North and South and the dominant Democratic Party with it. Illinoisan Stephen Douglas was the most popular candidate nationwide, but Southern Democrats refused to endorse him, fearing he did not support federal protections for slavery. Rather than backing Douglas, they put forward their own candidate, slaveowner John Breckinridge. His platform was almost identical to Douglas’, with one major exception: he supported a federal slave code governing the new western territories.

Portraits of Abraham Lincoln (1860) and Stephen Douglas (1859). Wikimedia Commons

With the Democrats in disarray, the new Republican Party came to the fore, with antislavery as its fundamental ideology. The favorite for the party’s nomination was New York Senator and ardent abolitionist William H. Seward, but in an effort to appeal to moderates, the Republicans instead chose a former Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln firmly believed “Slavery is wrong, morally, and politically,” but he thought the federal government “must not interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists.”

The South, however, would not be appeased. “The existence of slavery is at stake,” cried an editorial in the Charleston Mercury on November 3, warning that the United States may soon be led by “an Abolitionist white man.” The author called for a convention of Southern states to negotiate secession, should Lincoln assume the presidency. He wasn’t alone; the South was aflame with talk of secession, led in particular by “fire-eater” William Yancey. Southern firebrands made it clear: if Lincoln was elected, they would leave the Union. When Lincoln swept to victory, they did just that.

The cost of civil war. Cold Harbor, Virginia, April 1865. Library of Congress

Fears of a second civil war in 2020 are overblown; the United States is too wealthy, and the two partisan factions too geographically dispersed, to descend into catastrophic civil conflict. But 55 percent of Americans fear that the election will result in an increase in violence. They have good reason to be anxious. There have already been isolated incidents; in Texas, a gathering of nearly one hundred trucks festooned with Trump campaign flags accosted a Biden campaign bus in an apparent attempt to drive the bus off the road. Trump later tweeted a video of the incident with the caption “I LOVE TEXAS!” He has also called on his supporters to form an “army” and “monitor” polling places. He claims to be defending the election against corruption; election officials see it as voter intimidation. Some shops are already boarding up windows and doors in preparation for violent demonstrations following the election.

Trump’s tendency to incite violence and divide opinion make violence more likely; so too do the perceived high stakes in this election. According to Pew Research Center, 83 percent of voters believe it “really matters who wins” the 2020 election—the highest number this millennium. From his first campaign statement, Joe Biden argued that the election “is a battle for the soul of the nation.” Trump, meanwhile, promises to save the country from “radical Democrats” that “want to destroy you.” Liberals fear the erosion of democracy into minority rule and authoritarianism with a second Trump term; conservatives fear the phantom bogeyman of socialism and bird-killing wind turbines. Each accuses the other of being un-American. The poker chips are stacking up in the middle of the table like skyscrapers, both sides white knuckling the soft felt lining as they wait for the final decisive card in this marathon campaign.

At INTERZINE, we’re historians, not oracles. We can’t tell you who is going to win, nor can we tell you how the next few days will play out. All we can do is study the past to explain the present, to help open our eyes to the world as we hurtle inexorably towards the future. May it help us find a safe path on which to tread.

Scott Wagner is the supervising editor of INTERZINE.

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