Disputed Elections: An American Tradition
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Date: Fri, 24 Nov 100 14:05:53 -0800
Subject: Disputed Elections: An American Tradition
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DISPUTED ELECTIONS: AN AMERICAN TRADITION
What would the Founding Fathers do?
Holly Brewer teaches history at North Carolina State
University. Laurie Burnham is a writer in St. Paul, Minnesota
Editor's Note: The following was originally published by the
History News Service.
Some political analysts claim that without quick resolution of
the current presidential election, Americans will lose all
faith in the electoral process. But why rush to judgment?
The historical record shows that earlier generations, including
the Founding Fathers, believed that it is not haste but the
careful counting and analysis of votes that sustains political
freedom. A free society must always allow its citizens the
right to reasonable objection and redress in cases of
illegitimate electoral procedures.
Throughout U.S. history, legislators have decreed that several
months must stand between a president's election and
inauguration. During this time, votes can be counted, results
recorded and disseminated, and any procedural problems
addressed. Now, with two months until the inauguration of our
44th president, our nation has no need to rush the electoral
process. In a world of instant gratification, we may want
answers right away, but fairness is more important than haste.
For more than 200 years, elections in America have been
routinely disputed, a practice that protects the will of the
people. It is the only insurance that citizens' intent is met.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson "intervened" in many
As members of Virginia's lower House of Assembly, George
Washington and Thomas Jefferson themselves "intervened" in many
disputed elections. During the eighteenth century, resolving
contested elections was normally the first order of business in
every new term, both in Virginia and in other colonies and
states. Lawmakers would hear a county's claims and then decide
whether an election needed to be examined more closely or
nullified and redone.
Indeed, the historical record is full of cases in which votes
were resurveyed, confusing ballots reviewed, elections
nullified, and voters recanvassed. Even a cursory look at legal
reports from the nineteenth century reveals thousands of pages
devoted to contested elections.
When elections were questioned, common sense, rather than
adherence to technicality, prevailed. Long before punch cards
and other modern balloting methods became available, voters
wrote candidates' names on slips of paper. Misspellings and
wrong initials of first names and last names were commonplace.
Rather than throw out the ballots, as electoral judges in
Florida have recently done, judges ruled that voters' intent
had to be determined whenever possible.
Consider this report from Connecticut in 1878. "Votes cast at
an election for A.J.W. may be shown to have been intended for
A.L.W. The fact that A.L.W. was a candidate and received a
large number of votes, and that no person of the name of A.J.W.
or of the same first and last names, without the middle
initial, resided in the district, would be satisfactory
evidence to show that the votes must have been intended for
A.L.W." The judge considered voters' intent rather than
nullifying their votes.
In Iowa in 1877, judges ruled that "in reviewing an election
and determining its validity, the court must, if possible, give
to contested ballots such a construction as will make them
How do these cases relate to the current presidential election?
Fully 19,000 voters in Florida's Palm Beach County had their
votes disqualified because they punched two choices when
selecting a presidential candidate. Although the voters are
guilty of technical error, the ballot was misleading. It had
punch holes next to the names of both Democratic candidates,
for president and vice President.
According to precinct workers, many voters who found the ballot
confusing were denied assistance. And at least one voter who
mistakenly voted for Buchanan was refused a new ballot,
contrary to electoral law. Thousands of other ballots with
incomplete punches have not been counted because the tabulating
machine couldn't read them.
How might this epic dispute be best resolved? We need to ask
how the founders would have reacted.
According to the machine results, 11,000 people who cast
ballots in Palm Beach voted for no one for President. Clearly
the electoral process in West Palm Beach malfunctioned. With
political pressure for a solution mounting, how might this epic
dispute be best resolved? To answer that question, we need to
ask how our nation's founders would have reacted. One can only
suppose that they would assign twenty-first century voters at
least the same rights held by voters in earlier centuries.
The time has come for both political parties to embrace the
well-established tradition of electoral redress and to show
respect for the voter by honoring intent. A first step would be
an accurate manual recount in the presence of both partial and
impartial witnesses. This would help to clarify the intent of
some 30,000 voters and help to restore America's faith in the
A second option, also supported by historical precedent, would
be to give all who voted in that county the chance to recast
their ballots (quickly and without advertising or
interference). That would be the fairest option, since it would
provide the best gauge of their intent.
If all votes statewide need to be recounted by hand for
consistency, so be it. And if votes in Wisconsin and Iowa need
to be recounted, so be it. Neither Washington, nor Jefferson,
would have found that requirement objectionable. They would
have objected, however, to any candidate who sought the
presidency at the expense of the legitimacy and integrity of
the democratic process.
Copyright 1999-2000 The Florence Fund
© 2000 Peter Langston