Don’t Panic: American Elections Have Always Been a Frickin’ Mess

Our former Presidents Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. They absolutely despised each other and were extremely undignified about the whole thing.

The 2020 election is weird, to put it mildly. We’ve got a deadly pandemic limiting how many people feel safe voting in person. We’ve got fears around whether or not the USPS is capable of coping with an increase in mail ballots. We’ve got a president who has repeatedly refused to agree to a peaceful transfer of power. And we are facing election results that will likely take days to finalize instead of hours. It all feels very—to use the word that sums up almost everything in 2020—unprecedented.

Well, here’s a newsflash: It’s not.

Elections have been a mess in America ever since George Washington—a man who no longer even wanted to be president—was pressured into running unopposed in 1792. (His insistence on retiring four years later is what led to our current two-term limit.) President James Monroe also ran without a major opponent in 1820. Two hundred years later, at least we have two people to choose from?

Here are some other presidential elections from American history that make this one look slightly less unhinged.

1800: The Tied Election

Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson.

This year’s election cycle too long for ya? Think of the patient Americans who had to sit through 1800’s seven-month-long election (it ran from April to October), only to learn it had ended in a tie. At the time, the voting structure involved picking two candidates—the winner would be president, the runner-up vice president. When Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied, it was left up to the House of Representatives to pick a winner. After seven days and 35 different ballots, Jefferson was declared president, with Burr as his vice. The process was so convoluted, the results weren’t declared until Feb. 7, 1801. (If you need more juicy details, this is all covered in Hamilton.)

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1824: The (First) President Who Ignored the Popular Vote

John Quincy Adams.
John Quincy Adams.

In 1824’s presidential election, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote. He lost the presidency to John Quincy Adams, however, after then-speaker of the house Henry Clay cast a tie-breaking vote to ensure Adams was declared president instead. Clay’s motivations for the move became clear after Adams promoted him to secretary of state. The much-displeased Jackson and his supporters accused them of a “corrupt bargain.” Which sounds pretty accurate, until you consider the fact that only 3.4% of Americans were permitted to vote, and all of them were rich white men, so ... a belief the electoral process as “fair” to begin with is a bit rich.

1828: The (First) Bitchy Election

Andrew Jackson.
Andrew Jackson.

Oh, hey! It’s John Quincy Adams again! When faced with his old opponent Andrew Jackson in the 1828 election, Adams went after Jackson’s wife, Rachel, referring to the couple as “a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband.” He was referring to the fact that the Jacksons accidentally got married before Rachel’s divorce was finalized. Then came “The Coffin Handbills”—leaflets that accused Jackson of massacring Native people during the War of 1812, executing deserters, and enjoying duels just a little bit too much. (He was involved in about 100 of them, so ... yeah, probably.) Soon after, Virginia Congressman John Taliaferro piled on and accused Jackson of cannibalism. Jackson hit back by accusing Adams of sending an American girl to perform sex acts on a Russian czar. Adams also got (falsely) accused of making the government pay for his billiard table.

In the end, Jackson won in a landslide. Still, the bitterness remained. When Rachel Jackson died before his inauguration, Jackson accused Adams of having a hand in her death, via the stress caused by the bigamy accusations. “May God Almighty forgive her murderers as I know she forgave them,” Jackson said at her funeral. “I never can.” Needless to say, Jackson refused to meet with the outgoing president, as was customary. And Adams refused to go Jackson’s inauguration.

1872: The Presidential Candidate Who Died

Horace Greeley.
Horace Greeley.

Before his second term, President Ulysses S. Grant was up against Democrat Horace Greeley, the founder and editor of the New York Tribune. Greeley, however, dropped dead before the electoral college votes had been cast. Grant ultimately sailed through with 286 of the votes, but Greeley got more support than anticipated, winning 44% of the popular vote (about 3 million ballots). Greeley remains the only presidential candidate in American history to die before a winner was declared. Strangely, his wife had died just one week before him. There is a semi-happy ending though: Grant successfully wiped out the Ku Klux Klan for 50 years with the Enforcement Act of 1871.

1876: The One Where Everyone Agreed to Screw Over Black People

Rutherford B. Hayes.
Rutherford B. Hayes.

When Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden went head-to-head in 1876, the results were a total mess. This was because Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina couldn’t decide who to grant victory to. Subsequently, despite the fact that Tilden was the winner of the popular vote, Republicans and Democrats decided to come up with a shady deal to put Hayes in office. It was called the Compromise of 1877; it granted Hayes the presidency in exchange for withdrawing federal troops from the South. This, in effect, ended Reconstruction and handed those states back to “Democratic Redeemers,” who immediately went about enacting Jim Crow laws and systematically stopping Black folks from voting. Thanks, white people.

1920: The Imprisoned Presidential Candidate

Eugene V. Debs.
Eugene V. Debs.

Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs was serving 10 years in Atlanta’s Federal Penitentiary when he ran for President in 1920. Debs was imprisoned on espionage charges after vocally opposing World War I, and had previously been in and out of jail for his labor activism. 1920 was the fifth and last time Debs put himself forward as a presidential candidate. He won almost a million votes, taking third place after Republican Warren G. Harding and runner-up Democrat James Cox. The silver lining? One year into his term, President Harding commuted Debs’ sentence to time served.

2000: The State That Was Forced to Stop Counting Ballots

Newspapers sit side by side at a newstand. 'The New York Post' proclaims Texas Gov. George W. Bush the winner of the presidential election, while the 'New York Daily News' says the election is 'Too Close.' November, 2000.
'The New York Post' proclaims Texas Gov. George W. Bush the winner of the presidential election, while the 'New York Daily News' is more circumspect in their front page assessment. November, 2000. (HENNY RAY ABRAMS/AFP via Getty Images)

Many of us are old (and scarred) enough to remember the raging nightmare that was the aftermath of the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. On the first night, the results in New Mexico, Oregon and Florida were too close to call. Then, when it finally came down to just Florida, Gore and the Democrats contested close results in several counties. This triggered mandatory recounts. Then the Florida and Federal Supreme Courts commenced a frustrating squabble that went on for an agonizing 36 days. (Don’t even get me started on all that “hanging chads” business.) In the end, the Supreme Court ruled that a statewide recount was unconstitutional, and that smaller recounts just straight up shouldn’t happen. That meant the original tally still stood, Bush became president, and Gore went on to teach the world about how soon climate change is going to kill us all.

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Bush v. Gore is now remembered as the closest election in U.S. history. Pray hard we don’t have another like it.