Ballot box bedlam: 5 of the most controversial Election Days in US history

(AP file)
(AP file)

(MEDIA GENERAL) – With one notable exception, recent U.S. presidential elections have played on without calls of conspiracy, but that wasn’t always the case. Here are five of the most controversial Election Days in American history.

1800 – Hamilton spurs rival Burr to elect Jefferson

White House portrait of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. (Public Domain)
White House portrait of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. (Public Domain)

The election of 1800 illuminated some notable flaws in the American voting process after Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, ended up tied with 73 votes in the Electoral College. President John Adams, of the Federalist Party, earned 65 votes.

In the event of a tie, Congress votes to determine the winner. At the time, the Congress was controlled by the Federalist Party, which viewed Jefferson as their main opposition. However, treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton, a well-respected fundamentalist, disagreed, believing Jefferson to be the lesser of two evils between he and Burr.

Over five days, Congress voted 35 times without coming to a resolution. On the 36th vote, Congress elected Thomas Jefferson as the third president of the United States and named Burr as the vice president.

The rivalry between Hamilton and Burr, established before the 1800 election, continued until reaching its climax in the infamous 1804 duel where Burr – still the sitting vice president – fatally shot Hamilton. All charges against Burr eventually were dropped.

The flaws in the 1800 election gave birth to the 12th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which revised the procedures for electing the president and vice president.

1824 – Jackson decries a ‘corrupt bargain’

White House portrait of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States. (Public Domain)
White House portrait of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States. (Public Domain)

In 1824, Democratic-Republican candidate Andrew Jackson won the popular vote — by less than 40,000 ballots — and earned the most votes (99) in the Electoral College, but not a majority. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams earned 84, Treasury Secretary William Crawford took 41 and House Speaker Henry Clay earned 37.

Again, Congress was forced to settle the election. After several weeks of discussions, several House representatives shifted their support to Adams to name him the next president. Several of those representatives from Maryland, Illinois, Louisiana and Kentucky originally voted for Jackson. In Kentucky, Adams did not receive a single ballot in the popular vote.

After the inauguration, Adams tabbed Clay as the secretary of state. Irate and convinced of collusion, Jackson called Congress’ decision a “corrupt bargain” that overturned the will of the people. He left his Senate seat with a promise to run again in 1828 and win the presidency, which he did in a landslide.

1876 – New justice gives election to Hayes

White House portrait of Rutherford Hayes, the 19th president of the United States. (Public Domain)
White House portrait of Rutherford Hayes, the 19th president of the United States. (Public Domain)

In 1876, the candidate who won the popular vote and had the most votes in the Electoral College again failed to win the presidency. Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote over Republican Rutherford Hayes by more than 200,000 ballots and finished with 165 electoral votes – one shy of the majority.

However, 20 electoral votes were up in the air as party officials in Oregon, Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina each accused the other of fraud. The Supreme Court was called upon to issue a ruling. However, before the case was examined, Justice David Davis, widely regarded as an independent, was unexpectedly selected by the Illinois Legislature to serve in the U.S. Senate. Davis was replaced by Joseph Bradley, a staunch conservative, who awarded all 20 electoral votes – and the presidency – to Hayes.

1948 – Truman wins in a shocker

U.S. President Harry S. Truman holds up an Election Day edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, which, based on early results, mistakenly announced 'Dewey Defeats Truman' on Nov. 4, 1948. The president told well-wishers at St. Louis' Union Station, 'That is one for the books!' (AP file)
U.S. President Harry S. Truman holds up an Election Day edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, which, based on early results, mistakenly announced ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ on Nov. 4, 1948. The president told well-wishers at St. Louis’ Union Station, ‘That is one for the books!’ (AP file)

The 1948 election is remembered for the iconic photo of incumbent Harry Truman holding up an early edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune with a banner headline that read “Dewey defeats Truman.” Truthfully, in one way you can understand why the editors at the Tribune made that mistake.

Heading into the 1948 election, the Democratic Party was in disarray. Truman’s approval ratings hovered between 36 and 40 percent and he was facing two third-party nominees split from his party. Henry Wallace, Truman’s former secretary of commerce and former vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt, announced he was launching a third-party campaign over concerns with Truman’s foreign policy with the Soviet Union. Truman also fell out of favor with southern Democrats who were not fans of his support for civil rights, forming the short-lived run of the Dixiecrats, who nominated South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond for president.

Truman was sunk in the polls, trailing by as many as five points heading into Election Day, according to Gallup. New York Gov. Thomas Dewey was widely expected to be the winner. In a shocking turn, Truman won rather convincingly, by more than 4 percent of the popular vote over Dewey. Neither third-party candidate earned more than 3 percent of the vote.

According to the Tribune, the deadline for their first edition was moved hours earlier due to a strike at a printing facility. The managing editor, J. Loy Maloney, made the decision to run the infamous headline based on information from the paper’s longtime correspondent, Arthur Henning; running with the headline even though votes hadn’t yet been totaled in the earliest voting districts.

2000 – The curse of the hanging chad

Broward County canvassing board member Judge Robert Rosenberg uses a magnifying glass to examine a disputed ballot Friday, Nov. 24, 2000, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (AP file)
Broward County canvassing board member Judge Robert Rosenberg uses a magnifying glass to examine a disputed ballot Friday, Nov. 24, 2000, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (AP file)

The 2000 election between vice president and Democratic nominee Al Gore and Republican challenge George W. Bush came down to a controversial recount of ballots in Florida. Following the razor-thin results, conspiracies flew, namely because of Bush’s brother, Jeb, who was the sitting Governor of Florida.

After a machine recount gave Bush a 327-vote edge – out of more than 6 million ballots cast — election officials spent 36 days recounting ballots by hand to make sure they had the correct outcome, which would tip the result of the election.

Lawyers for both campaigns got involved to determine which ballots should be counted and which shouldn’t. Several different types of ballots returned errors when ran through the counting machines because they weren’t properly punched – giving rise to the “hanging chad” and the less-popular “pregnant chad.”

Gore’s lawyers pushed for the most permitting standard for measuring a ballot, dubbed the “lenient standard,” which would count any vote in which a mark or indentation was made – counting all pregnant or hanging chads. The strict standard would only count votes where there was a “clean punch,” tossing out any vote with an irregularity. Ironically, in the original count, the lenient standard gave Bush a 1,665-vote lead, while the strict standard favored Gore by three votes.

On Dec. 12, 2000, the Supreme Court reversed a decision by the Florida Supreme Court and awarded Florida’s 25 electoral votes – and the election – to Bush. Bush won the Electoral College 271-266. It was the tightest result in the Electoral College since the 1876 election where Hayes defeated Tilden.

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