by Jamie H. Eves
Most of the time, elections in the United States go pretty smoothly. One candidate wins, the others concede with at least a modicum of grace, and the public accepts the results. But sometimes an election is disputed, meaning either that one or more of the candidates questions the results of the election and the outcome becomes uncertain, or that the supporters of one or more of the candidates refuses to accept the results. Disputed elections undermine both republicanism and democracy. Because the public cannot be sure who won, or cannot accept the policies of the winner or their own side’s defeat, people begin to reject the legitimacy of the electoral system itself. If not resolved quickly and fairly, disputed elections can lead to protests, turmoil, tumult, and even civil war. Nevertheless, disputed elections can be resolved, either when the two sides work out a compromise that allows one of the candidates to assume office but also assures that issues
important to the other side are resolved in a way that it finds acceptable, or when one of the candidates simply decides to concede gracefully, either for the good of the republic or because they conclude that winning is impossible, and persuades their followers to accept the loss. Six U. S. presidential elections (1800, 1824, 1860, 1876, 1960, and 2000) were disputed, along with scores of state and local elections. This article summarizes the results of the six disputed presidential elections, along with a disputed gubernatorial election in Connecticut. I wrote it in the Fall of 2020 for the students in my first-year U. S. History classes at Eastern Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut (Hartford), and the University of Connecticut (Storrs), to help them understand what might happen if President Donald J. Trump decided to dispute the results of the 2020 United States presidential election.
A few quick points before getting started: Nothing in the Constitution or in law requires losing candidates to formally concede defeat in an election, although there are good public policy reasons for doing so. Losing candidates and their followers remain Constitutionally and legally free to organize against the policies and programs of the winners, and to contest future elections. Nothing in the Constitution or law prohibits former Presidents or Governors from criticizing their successors, although tradition holds that they should attempt not to do so.
Asking for a recount of the ballots, to the extent that it is allowed by law, is normal and not the same thing as disputing the results of the election. Peacefully disputing an election is neither unconstitutional nor illegal, but it may have serious and unintended consequences for the republic. And finally, attempting to overturn the results of an election by force or other means that violate both law and the Constitution threatens the very existence of democratic and republican government.