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4 inconclusive Electoral College results that challenged our democracy

4 inconclusive Electoral College results that challenged our democracy
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The prospect of a non-peaceful transfer of power after an election is terrifying.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter DC correspondent on the death of Michael Reinoehl: 'The folks I know in law enforcement are extremely angry about it' Late night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study MORE has sowed doubt about the outcome of the presidential election. In light of the possibility that mail-in ballots may alter results based on in-person voting, it is certainly possible that he might raise concerns about the results in the Electoral College.

Similarly, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonLate night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study 10 steps toward better presidential debating Continuity is (mostly) on the menu for government contracting in the next administration MORE has urged Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter Trump narrows Biden's lead in Pennsylvania: poll Florida breaks first-day early voting record with 350K ballots cast MORE not to concede the election under any circumstances on Election Day, but to await a full and complete counting of all ballots.

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Delays in determining the final electoral results could lead to demands for recounts and other legal challenges, which would further postpone the final outcome of the election. As the complex processes transpire, our country would become even more polarized, potentially leading to massive protests and even violence. 

Since it is possible that tallies tabulated when the Electoral College votes on December 14 might not produce a definitive winner, it is useful to review the four times when results of the Electoral College were inconclusive. 

In each case, it took weeks before the nation learned who would serve as the next president. Fortunately, despite violence and concerns for civil unrest, America’s democracy ultimately proved up to the challenges. 

These four historical examples are useful precedents should this year’s election outcome remain in doubt even after popular votes have been cast and counted. 

Each of the four electoral disputes were resolved differently. The sole common denominator among these events was that after the various processes were finished, the eventual runners-up all placed the good of the country above their personal ambitions and accepted the final decisions.

In one of the most bitter and abusive election campaigns in history, 1800, the sitting vice president, Thomas Jefferson, defeated John Adams, the incumbent president seeking reelection.  

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Although Aaron Burr had been Jefferson’s vice presidential running mate, as a result of how electoral ballots were cast at the time, Jefferson ended in a tie with Burr. It took 36 ballots before the House of Representatives declared Jefferson the next president. This led directly to the 12th Amendment, which provided for separate Electoral College votes for president and vice president, thus correcting this weakness in the earlier system.

John Adams left town at 4 am on the day of Jefferson’s inauguration. This marked the first time that political power was transferred peacefully from one party to another as a result of an election, earning it the moniker “the Revolution of 1800.” It has served as the basis of American democracy ever since. 

Following the bitterly contested campaign and the long, drawn-out post-election process, Jefferson sought to sooth the nation’s anger. In his inauguration speech, he called on his fellow citizens to be “united in common efforts for the common good.” 

In 1824, Andrew Jackson became the only candidate in American history to win both the most popular and electoral votes yet be denied the White House.

When none of the four major candidates that year received a majority of the electoral votes, the decision was turned over to the House of Representatives.

House Speaker Henry Clay used his influence to ensure that on February 9, 1825, the House declared John Quincy Adams to be the next president.

Jackson’s followers fumed, especially when Adams nominated Clay to be his secretary of state. They characterized Adams’s victory by a vote in the House, followed by Clay’s appointment, as a “corrupt bargain.” 

Despite the wishes of some of his adherents who urged him to reject the outcome, Jackson accepted the House decision, returned to Nashville, and promptly started strategic planning for his overwhelming defeat of Adams in 1828. 

In 1876, Samuel Tilden became the only candidate ever to win over 50 percent of the popular vote and still lose the presidency. That was because Tilden fell one electoral vote short of the 185 needed for victory. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes had 165 electoral votes, with 20 in dispute.

The electoral controversy dragged on for months. As the bitterness between the two parties intensified, members in both parties considered using force to solve the problem. Democratic governors discussed mobilizing National Guard units to install Tilden as president, while Republicans threatened to activate regular army units on behalf of Hayes.

To break the deadlock, Congress appointed a special electoral commission, which voted 8-7, along straight party lines, that all disputed electoral votes be credited to Hayes.  

In what has been labeled “the Compromise of 1877,” southern Democrats accepted Hayes's election provided that federal troops be removed from southern states, effectively ending Reconstruction and leading African Americans in the South to suffer through decades of Jim Crow disenfranchisement. 

The Commission’s final resolution was not announced until almost the eve of the scheduled inauguration. Significantly, Tilden accepted the outcome and encouraged his followers to do the same, thus avoiding another Civil War. 

In 2000, Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreFox News president warns of calling winner too soon on election night: 2000 still 'lingers over everyone' Older voters helped put Trump in office; they will help take him out Debate is Harris's turn at bat, but will she score? MORE won a plurality of the popular vote, but fell short of an electoral majority. The ultimate outcome hinged on whether he or Republican George W. Bush would receive Florida’s 25 electoral votes. 

After weeks of contentious legal battles, on December 12, 2000 the Supreme Court declared in a 5-4 decision that the previous vote certification in Florida should stand and there should be no further recounts. This gave Bush a total of 271 electoral votes, one more than the 270 required to win.  

At a time when the country was polarized in anger, Gore’s gracious concession and Bush's moderate victory speech went a long way toward calming the nation. 

Although the four inconclusive electoral outcomes initially resulted in chaos, the runners-up ultimately accepted the outcomes. This remains the bedrock principle of our democracy; without this our entire democratic system would be in peril.

Ralph Nurnberger taught history and international relations at Georgetown University for over 30 years. He previously served on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.