What is the history of contested presidential elections in the United States?

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In 2020, the presidential election appears to be contested by some groups, including the president himself. Contested presidential elections have been a part of US history, and in the 19th century, they were more common. In many cases, it has often been because of the electoral college and popular vote discrepancies. In general, contested elections have usually been peacefully resolved, even if some parties continue to feel grieved long after the vote.

Contested Presidential Elections in the 19th Century

Figure 1. Results of the 1824 election.

The 1824 presidential election featured four main candidates, with the candidates being Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and William Crawford (Figure 1). Because there were four main candidates, with each having some support, the results led to a contested election in which no candidate could obtain the majority of the electoral college. This election featured only one party, the Democratic-Republican Party, although numerous factions existed, which eventually gave rise to the Democratic and Republican parties.

As most electoral college votes are needed to become president, the election led to one of the few times the House of Representatives ultimately chose who became president. Andrew Jackson had won the most electoral votes, and he had expected to be voted by the House as the next president, but he ultimately proved unsuccessful, and the House voted John Quincy Adams. It was (likely) the first election where the winner did not receive a majority of the popular vote, where Adams only obtained about 32% of the total vote. Clay, who finished fourth, lent Adams support and lobbied for him to be elected by the House, which helped overcome Jackson's challenge. Clay was effectively out of the running, so he had decided he would gain more by supporting Adams.

Unlike today, more than a couple of states split their electoral votes based on districts. Maryland, Louisiana, Illinois, and New York split their votes in that election. Clay's help for Adams led Jackson to accuse Adams of striking a corrupt bargain, as Clay was appointed Secretary of State in the Adams' administration. This controversy continued well after the election and motivated Jackson to run again. In fact, that message and accusation of corruption helped Jackson win the next presidential election.[1]

The Disputed Election of 1876

Perhaps the most disputed election, and certainly one with a controversial result, in US history, is the presidential election of 1876, which saw Rutherford Hayes (Republican) vs. Samuel J. Tilden (Democratic). In that election, Tilden had obtained the majority of the popular votes and, initially, the majority of the electoral votes (Tilden had won 184 electoral votes to Hayes's 165).

However, 20 electoral votes were unresolved after days of counting, with results missing from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Each party declared their candidate won in those states, but it could not be resolved with ballots counted or the electoral votes. In the so-called Compromise of 1877, the election was resolved by the Democratic party agreeing to give 20 electoral votes to Hayes in exchange for the Republicans withdrawing federal troops from the South, who had been there since the end of the Civil War, and formally ending Reconstruction. That compromise had long-lasting effects on the suppression of black voters, particularly as Jim Crow laws gained power in the South after the end of Reconstruction.

Still, in the immediate sense, it resolved the election by allowing the Democrats to get their main aims at least. That election was notable for having the highest voter turnout (81.8%) in US history for any presidential election and the narrowest electoral college victory for the winning candidate (185 to 184 after the compromise deal was made).[2]

The Election of 1888

The 1888 presidential election saw Democratic President Grover Cleveland of New York run against Republican candidate Indiana U.S. Senator Benjamin Harrison. Harrison was able to carry the electoral votes and beat out Cleveland, who carried most voters. The electoral results were 233 vs. 168 for Harrison. What marred the election was the Cleveland campaign caught the Harrison campaign is attempting to buy votes. The action was technically not illegal. In Indiana, local leaders were promised funds to buy votes in Indiana and the letter stating the Democratic party found this.

In fact, besides Indiana, there could have been attempts to buy votes in New York, explaining how Cleveland lost his home state that he was widely expected to win. While Cleveland ultimately lost his re-election bid, as he did not contest the election beyond the immediate controversy of the result, he was able to successfully run in 1880 using the 1876 results as motivation, becoming the only president with non-consecutive terms.[3]

The 1960 Presidential Election

Figure 2. A higher percentage of Kennedy votes in Texas and Illinois helped put Kennedy in the White House in 1960.

While the 19th century was known for sometimes fractious and contested elections that were often drawn out, elections were relatively less dramatic after this time elections or were settled more clearly through the electoral college. Among the most controversial elections in the 20th century for president was the 1960 election. This was the closest election in the 20th century, where Richard Nixon (Republican) competed against John F. Kennedy (Democratic). Texas and Illinois allowed Kennedy to win, where he only received 100,000 more votes in total (or 0.2 of the electorate) to defeat Nixon.

What made it controversial was the close race, where the Republicans widely speculated voter fraud. In particular, southern Texas and Chicago became the focus of the controversy and accusations that Richard Daley, then mayor of Chicago, used his political machine to turn out voters, including possibly deceased or ineligible individuals supposedly casting votes, that led to Republicans crying foul.

While prominent Republicans were calling for an investigation into election tampering and fraud, including major newspapers backing Nixon having published stories suggesting fraud, Nixon ultimately chose not to pursue any legal challenges and accepted the results. Instead, he focused on running in another election (1968), which he won in a landslide.[4]

The Election of 2000

More recently, the 2000 election between Al Gore and George Bush resulted in a contested election that was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court. In this election, Gore won the popular vote and 266 electoral votes. However, he needed Florida to obtain the needed 270 electoral votes. Florida resulted in a razor-thin voting margin for Bush, with the total being 537 more votes for Bush (margin of 0.009%). After a series of lawsuits, the Supreme Court, in a well-publicized (Gore vs. Bush) 5-4 decision, decided to stop the recount occurring throughout the state of Florida that had begun after the election, leading to Bush's triumph based on where the count had been suspended.

In addition to the controversy around stopping the recount, controversy also revolved around ballots that were not counted due to technical or voting errors.[5]

General and Common Concerns

Interestingly, all of these contested elections often were resolved peacefully without violence. Arguably, the 1860 election was heavily contested, one which did not lead to a peaceful resolution as the Civil War resulted from this election. However, the results were generally clear, with Abraham Lincoln winning that election and capturing the majority of electoral votes. One could argue that the Civil War was inevitable by 1860, given the likelihood of the Republican candidate winning that year.

Only the 2000 election resulted in the Supreme Court getting involved. The other controversial elections often led to either the losing candidates resolving to run again, and often winning the next time, or a compromise result was enacted between the parties (1876). The 20th century has generally seen mostly smooth elections where candidates obtain the majority of popular votes and electoral votes; however, the 2000 and 2016 elections have shown that the popular vote often does not align with the electoral college vote even in the modern era.


The US presidential election system is complex in that it requires the majority of electoral college votes to go to a single candidate. This has created controversial results both in the early history of the United States (e.g., 1826) and in recent history, where candidates receiving the majority of the popular vote may not obtain the majority of the electoral college votes. Interestingly, early resolutions to this problem involved dividing states into divisible electoral votes, rather than giving the winner of the state popular vote automatically all of the electoral votes for the state. However, this still led to problems in 1826. More recently, only two states allow their electoral votes to be divided.


  1. For more on the 1824 election, see: Waldstreicher, D. (Ed.), 2013. A companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Wiley-Blackwell companions to American history. Wiley-Blackwell, A John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., Publication, Malden, MA.
  2. For more on the 1876 election, see Rehnquist, W.H., 2004. Centennial crisis: the disputed election of 1876, 1st ed. ed. Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, New York.
  3. For more on the 1888 election, see: Wesser, R., 2019. Election of 1888. History of American Presidential Elections.
  4. For more on the 1960 election, see: Kallina, E.F., 2011. Kennedy v. Nixon: the presidential election of 1960. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL.
  5. For more on the 2000 election, see: Gottfried, T., 2002. The 2000 election: Thirty-six days of discord., Headliners. Millbrook Press, Brookfield, Conn.