Election 2008

Hayes/Wheeler campaign poster from 1876

5 Most Controversial Presidential Elections in American History

November 04, 2008 10:00 AM
by Emily Coakley
As America goes to the polls, we recall some of the nation’s most disputed elections, including those of 1800, 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000.

Ballots, Bargains and Chads

Though the 2000 election is what most people think of when they hear the phrase “election disaster,” the American presidential election has seen a number of disputed and unusual events.


The election in 1800 went to the House of Representatives after a voting mix-up left Thomas Jefferson and his vice presidential running mate Aaron Burr with the same number of electoral votes. It took the House 36 ballots and six days to declare Jefferson the winner.

“The presidential election of 1800 was an angry, dirty, crisis-ridden contest that seemed to threaten the nation’s very survival,” wrote Joanne Freeman, a Yale University history professor, on the site History Now.

More troubling, it exposed “a fundamental constitutional defect in the presidential and vice presidential voting process,” she said.

Freeman explained that whoever got the most votes was president, and the person with the next highest vote count became vice president.

“In 1800, it created a tied election in which both candidates were entitled to claim the presidency, and even the backup procedure of deciding the election in the House almost failed; it took six days and thirty-six ballots to break the deadlock,” she said.

Congress fixed this in 1804 with the 12th Amendment, which required that the president and vice president be voted on separately.


C-Span calls the 1824 election, “one of the most controversial elections in United States history.”

Despite losing the popular and electoral votes, John Quincy Adams became president. The election was known to some as the “Corrupt Bargain” after Adams named Henry Clay, the speaker of the House of Representatives—and the man who convinced Congress to elect Adams—to serve as secretary of state.

Adams faced Andrew Jackson, who won the popular vote and the most electoral votes, but not the majority. So, as in 1800, the House of Representatives had to decide the election. Clay had been among the presidential candidates, but had the fewest electoral votes. Before the House had a chance to consider the matter, though, “a Philadelphia newspaper published an anonymous letter claiming that Clay would support Adams in return for an appointment as Secretary of State. Clay vigorously denied this,” said History Central.

According to C-Span, every candidate in the election was a Republican, but after his loss, Jackson formed the Democratic Party.


Before the 2000 election, there was the 1876 election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden, governors of Ohio and New York, respectively. Although both parties accused each other of corruption during the campaign, it was after the votes had been cast that the shenanigans really started.

In his book “Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President,” Ari Hoogenboom writes that Hayes went to bed Election Night believing he had lost. When the votes had been counted, Tilden had won the popular vote and had a 184-165 lead in the electoral vote. However, 20 electoral votes in South Carolina, Oregon, Florida and Louisiana were contested; Hayes’ supporters sent messages to Republican leaders in the southern states saying, “With your state sure for Hayes, he is elected. Hold your state.”

Both sides were thought to have engaged in fraud, and the weeks passed without a clear winner.

“In Florida, it was impossible to determine who would have won a fair election. Repeaters, stuffed ballot boxes, and Democratic ballots printed with the Republican symbol to trick illiterate voters had all been used. In addition, returns from remote areas had been delayed, to be altered as needed,” wrote Hoogenboom.

In December, Congress stepped in, forming a 15-member committee to investigate the matter. In February, the commission voted 8-7 along party lines to give Florida’s electoral votes for Hayes; it would do the same for Louisiana, Oregon, and South Carolina, giving Hayes the required 185 electoral votes to win the presidency.

Republicans made backroom deals with Democrats to ensure Hayes’ victory, promising to appoint Democrats to cabinet positions and end reconstruction efforts. On March 2—three days before inauguration day—Hayes was officially declared the winner.

“On Monday, March 5, 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes was sworn in publicly as president of the United States,” writes Harper’s Weekly. “As anticipated, within two months, President Hayes removed the remaining federal troops in the South from political duty (guarding the statehouses), Democratic state administrations gained power, and the era of Reconstruction formally ended.”


Grover Cleveland, who was running for a second term against Benjamin Harrison, had 93,000 more popular votes after the election in 1888. Though he lost in the Electoral College 233 to 168, according to Harper’s Weekly.

New York and Indiana, which had supported Cleveland in his first election, swung to favor Harrison, who won the election, according to History television channel.


The election in 2000 “resulted in the most bizarre vote count in American history,” said the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. Al Gore narrowly won the popular vote, but lost in the Electoral College.

Though Gore conceded the race the day after Election Day, he rescinded his concession after learning that Florida was too close to call, according to Eagleton. 

The race was close in many states, CNN said, but Florida got the spotlight.

Said CNN: “In Palm Beach County, an unexpectedly large vote for third-party candidates leads to questions about the ‘butterfly ballot’ there, where the names of candidates are placed on the left and right columns of a page and a series of punch holes are found in a center column. Large numbers of disqualified ballots, or ballots where no vote is registered for president, are found in other counties.”

An initial recount in Florida showed Bush ahead by about 300 votes, of almost 6 million in total. As some counties there started hand recounts, Bush went to court to stop them.

Florida’s Supreme Court said the hand-counts could continue, but set a deadline some county officials did not think they could meet.

The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that the state Supreme Court had overstepped its authority by setting new standards to determine who won the election.

According to Eagleton, “The Court further held, by a 5 to 4 majority, that Federal election law specified a December 12 deadline for states to certify their winners, and that accordingly it was too late to allow any statewide recount remedy to proceed, even if the recount proceeded under the original standard.”

The court’s decision was issued on Dec. 12. The Electoral College met the next week, and Bush received 271 votes to Gore’s 266.

Related Topic: Concern over the American election infrastructure

A report from Brennan Center for Justice, Verified Voting and Common Cause says, “Most states have not adopted laws and procedures that would allow them to effectively address all of the most common election system meltdowns,” according to findingDulcinea. The tight race has raised concerns that there could be problems in Georgia, Virginia, Colorado, Ohio and Florida.

Read more about technology and security being used to protect people’s votes with a findingDulcinea feature on the voting booth.


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