Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

What We Can Learn from a Short History of Election Disputes.

1876 nastWe tend to think that the most recent election is uniquely important, and any irregularity is quickly magnified. A short history of just a few of the many contested U.S. Presidential elections shows that elections are often messy, and that legal intervention of some sort (either by a change in the law or by court ruling) has frequently been the remedy. That review may also give us a glimpse of what to expect this year.

The first major election dispute was in 1800, when the Jefferson ran against Adams. Jefferson's party, the Democratic Republicans, handily won, and the party electors dutifully wrote down the names of both the presidential candidate (Jefferson) and the vice-presidential candidate (Burr). This resulted in a tie. The vote thus went to the House, which was controlled by the Federalists, and in which Burr refused to concede his position to Jefferson, thinking that the Federalists might prefer him and he could thus win the presidency. In the end, the House chose Jefferson, and, eventually, the 12th Amendment was passed to prevent a repeat tie.

In 1836, there were four candidates for president. Jackson won the popular vote, but with no majority in electoral votes, the election once again went to the House. The House dropped the fourth candidate with the lowest votes (Clay), and Adams managed to capture most of those elector's votes, possibly because he promised Clay a cabinet position. As a result, for the first time, the person who won the popular vote did not win the presidency.

In 1876, Tilden ran against Hayes, and Tilden won the popular vote. However, when the electoral college met, Tilden came up one vote short of winning, with 20 electoral votes being disputed by their states (each party claiming the votes for themselves). For the first time, the Supreme Court had a role in deciding who won - a commission was formed with 5 senators, 5 congressmen, and 5 Supreme Court Justices. The commission was supposed to be equally split, 7-7, between the parties, with one independent being chosen by the Justices, in this case, Justice Davis. When Davis was selected to serve as a Senator, he was replaced by a Justice Bradley, who, it turned out, voted entirely with the Republicans, and the commission decided 8-7 to award Hayes all of the votes. After numerous compromises (including, allegedly, the Compromise of 1877, ending Reconstruction) and bargains between the political parties, Hayes was sworn in accord with the commission's decision.

In 2000, Al Gore won the popular election against George W. Bush by .5%. However, the electoral vote remained unknown until Florida completed its vote count on November 8, resulting in a win by George W. Bush by just over 300 votes (later rising to 900 when mail-in ballots were counted), giving him 271 electoral votes. Issues with "hanging chads" and purported fraud resulted in a call for a hand recount in some counties. That recount resulted in a 537 vote win for Bush, certified on November 26.

Gore challenged the vote. He lost his challenge in a lower state court, but won in the Florida Supreme Court, which issued an order on December 8 requiring a recount of the 70,000 votes recorded as "undervotes" by the voting machines. The next day, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an order staying the Florida Supreme Court's order, treating the application for the stay as a writ of certioari, granting the writ, and setting the case for a 1 1/2 hour oral argument on December 11.

On December 12, the Court issued a 7-2 per curiam decision ordering that the recount stop, based on equal protection grounds, given the different standards of counting that were being used in different counties. Justices Breyer and Souter recommended that a statewide recount be held prior to the December 18th meeting of electors, but because the State of Florida had stated that it intended to meet the discretionary December 12 “safe harbor” deadline set by U.S. Election Code (3 U.S.C. §5), the court ruled 5-4 to reject that remedy. In the end, there was no time left to do anything but certify the original vote.

As you can see, the 2000 election was the first time the Supreme Court directly intervened in a State's efforts to decide an election recount. The division reflected in the court's opinions showed a tensions between two goals - ensuring a proper process to determine legal votes, and making sure that every vote is counted. Scalia's initial concurrence to the stay summarized the issue nicely from his perspective: each recount was alleged to physically degrade the paper ballots, so if the process being utilized was incorrect, counting the ballots first might actually mean that counting the ballots under a proper process, later, might become impossible.

It seems likely that there will be recounts in the 2020 election. In some states, those recounts will occur statewide. In others, they may be called on a district-by-district basis.

Political compromise, the main method in determining earlier close elections, seems unlikely. Court challenges, however, are already in the works. Methodologies for recounts have been largely standardized, so any machine recount should be done fairly quickly and with fewer potential challenges (hand recounts may be a different matter). This is important, because Bush v. Gore gave great weight to the State of Florida's election code and deadlines. Unlike the Franken-Coleman senate-race recount and court challenge, which took almost nine months, presidential recount challenges are very time sensitive. Any challenges to the recounts because of election fraud are thus also likely going to have to be decided within this narrow timeframe.

Already, though, Trump's legal teams are making equal-protection arguments, showing that they are also closely reading the Bush v. Gore playbook. There are claims that mail-in and in-person ballots are treated differently. There are suggestions that count observations are also done differently in different districts. However, to date, none of these allegations show as concrete a difference as the way those "hanging chads" or "dimpled chads" were being counted in each county in Florida. And the ticking clock for election deadlines means that any challenge will need to be equally clear if it has any hopes of resolution in time.

(image credit - Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, February 17, 1877, commenting on the compromise of 1877 that eventually resolved the 1876 election, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain)

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