Thanks to CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Twitter, Facebook, telephone polls, TV pundits and talking heads, and the many other media sources with which we were bombarded we seem to think the recent election is the most controversial presidential election in American history. Take a deep breath, turn off your TV set, power down your computer, and after reading Three Lives of Peter Novak, read a book on American history. You will discover that there has been a plethora of controversies over presidential elections. Perhaps the most controversial occurred in 1876, after the (un)civil war and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Below are what is considered to be the ten most controversial presidential elections in U.S. history.
1.Rutherford B. Hayes (R) vs. Samuel Tilden (D). The 1876 election was a mess, period. It came on the heels of the Grant administration, one of the most corrupt in US history, and was a great opportunity for the Democrats to regain some power after the political fallout from the Civil War. The election got ugly quickly, with Democrats focusing their attacks on the Grant administration, and the Republicans reminding everyone that there’d just been a Civil War thanks to the Democrats. In the South, racist and confederate groups violently quelled the Republican and African-American vote.
When the results came in, it was a gigantic mess, with Tilden winning more than 50% of the popular vote, but the Electoral College vote up in the air, thanks to widespread voter fraud and tampering with electors. Oregon Governor La Fayette Grover declared a Republican elector invalid, and replaced him with a Democrat elector, an order the Republicans in the state ignored, resulting in two ballots from Oregon – one that gave Tilden the win, and one that did so for Hayes. In Washington DC, there was a debate over how the electors were to be counted in the Senate. Eventually, a backroom compromise was worked out where the Democrats would concede victory to Hayes, in exchange for the end of reconstruction in the South, the appointment of a Southerner to Hayes’ cabinet, and the construction of the Texas-Pacific railroad. Hayes served one term, and then stepped aside.
2. Lincoln vs. Douglas: Some elections are controversial because of how they were conducted. This one was controversial because of what happened around and after it. The issue of the day, as it had been for over a decade, was slavery. In 1856, the South had threatened secession and Civil War if the Republicans won, and so James Buchanan was elected. The weakening union forever marred Buchanan’s Presidency and, when the 1860 election rolled around, he wasn’t even a candidate.
With the South again threatening war, the campaign came down to two separate races: the Northern race and the Southern race. The Northern race featured Abe Lincoln against Stephen Douglas, while the Southern race was between Douglas, Breckinridge, and Bell. Nine states in the South (almost the entire Confederacy) didn’t even have Lincoln on the ballot. In the North, New York returned the favor by having zero Democrats, while Rhode Island removed Breckinridge and Bell, and Pennsylvania removed Breckinridge. On Election Day, Lincoln won just under 40% of the popular vote and 180 electoral votes: more than the 152 needed to win). He lost the border states (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware), but had a commanding lead in the North, especially in the electoral-vote-heavy states of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
3. Bush vs. Gore. Although the primary season was a bit dirty, both candidates ran a fairly clean election season, whose primary issue was the faltering economy following the dot-com bubble pop of the late 90’s. However, both candidates had their issues. Vice-President Gore refused to be seen with then-President Clinton, over fear that Clinton’s late-term sex scandals would hurt Gore’s election chances, and Bush faced late-election charges of cocaine and alcohol abuse during his college days.
The election was tight all the way to the end. On election night, around 7:50 PM, news networks said that Gore had won Florida, ignoring the largely Republican Florida Panhandle that was still voting at the time. By 10 PM, however, it had become apparent that Florida was not decided. At 2:30 AM, the networks declared Bush the winner and Gore had called Bush to concede, but rescinded his concession later on. The next few weeks involved multiple recounts, debates over ballot-counting standards, criticisms of the so-called “butterfly ballots”, rejected ballots and, most famously, hanging chads. Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Bush ally, used Florida law to require all boards canvass their results by November 14. The Florida Supreme Court overrode this and extended the deadline to late November. Furthermore, Gore contested the results in court. A lower court disagreed with Gore, but the Florida Supreme Court overruled them, and ordered a recount of 70,000 rejected ballots and ultimately wanted a statewide recount.
The US Supreme Court halted that order, due to the fact that paper ballots degrade each time they’re counted. Eventually, the whole recount went to the US Supreme Court, which ruled 7-2 that the Florida court unconstitutionally overstepped its bounds in changing the rules and requiring a statewide recount, and ruled 5-4 that the recounts should stop. The result was that Gore’s case ended, and Florida’s electors went to Bush. Later on, unofficial recounts of the ballots cast produced a variety of results. To this day, the 2000 election brings up heated discussion on both sides of the political aisle in the US, but it also serves as a good, modern example of exactly how the Electoral College works.
4. Woodrow Wilson vs. William Howard Taft: From the Civil War up until the Great Depression, the Republican Party held a near-stranglehold on the Presidency, with only two Democrats being elected to the Presidency between 1860 and 1932. The 1912 election gave us one of those Democrats, when the Republican Party split its nomination between sitting President William Howard Taft and former President Teddy Roosevelt. Eventually, after some backdoor politicking, Taft emerged as the party nominee. Teddy, not to be outdone, walked out with the progressive wing of the party and ran as a third-party candidate, along with Socialist Eugene Debs. During the course of the campaign, Roosevelt was shot during a speech, which made him pause to inform the audience that he’d just been shot. He said that it wouldn’t be a problem, since it would “take more than that to kill a bull moose“, and he finished his speech.
By the time Election Day rolled around though, Wilson secured victory by winning the electoral and popular vote, with Roosevelt coming in 2nd and Taft coming in 3rd – the last time a major party would not come in 1st or 2nd – and Debs coming in fourth; his was the best showing the Socialist Party would ever have in an American election. Had the Republican Party not split its vote between two candidates, since many states that went to Wilson did so with less-than-50% majorities, the GOP candidate would’ve won in November, with 363 electoral votes.
Our country has weathered many electoral storms as well as other controversies and somehow has managed to survive some two and a half centuries. It will survive Donald Trump and the current unrest as well.