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by William H. Benson

December 21, 2000

     Along with the legal debacle that followed the 2000 Presidential election, pieces of the past jumped forward into the present.  Bush and Gore as well as the media reached back into the past for previous examples of close elections to guide themselves through this constitutional swamp.

     For example, after Gore’s concession speech, Bush referred to the election of 1800, two hundred years prior to his own.  John Adams, a Federalist, had been elected in 1796 and ran again in 1800 against Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, and his running mate Aaron Burr.  Jefferson beat Adams in the electoral college 73 to 65, but Aaron Burr, of the same party as Jefferson, had also received 73 votes.  ( In 1804 the Twelfth Amendment removed the possibility of a tie between two candidates on the same ticket.)

     The Constitution dictated that should a tie occur in the electoral college, the House of Representatives should then decide.  After 35 ballots the House was deadlocked over Jefferson or Burr until February 17, 1801 when Jefferson privately assured the many Federalist office-holders that if they chose him, they would keep their jobs.  Jefferson, the exalted idealist, thus began his presidency with a bit of a deal.  

     Then, the election in 1824 involved another Adams–this time John Quincy Adams, John Adams’s son.  Although the electoral college was a reality, this was the first election in which popular voting was also important.  Andrew Jackson, the immensely popular General, won the popular vote 153,544 compared to Adams’s 108,740.  Of the 261 electoral votes cast, Jackson won 99 to Adams’s 84, but because two other men, William Crawford and Henry Clay, had also gathered electoral votes, Jackson had not won a majority of those electoral votes.

     According to the Twelfth Amendment, if no candidate earned a majority, the House would decide.  Henry Clay was Speaker of the House and the power broker.  He met with John Quincy Adams in January of 1825 and cut a deal.  Clay would select Adams if Adams would then in turn appoint Clay Secretary of State.  It went as planned, and Adams became President even though by any reckoning Jackson was the clear winner.

     Jackson exploded in anger and wrote, “Was there ever witnessed such bare-face corruption?”  He devoted the next four years to campaigning for the 1828 election which he then handily won.

     But, the first Presidential election I can remember was in 1960, and it was close.  Kennedy defeated Nixon.  However, the historian Paul Johnson stated the outcome bluntly, “This was a crooked election, especially in Texas and Illinois, two states notorious for fraud, and both of which Kennedy won.”  If he had not, he would have lost the election. 

     Lyndon Baines Johnson, the very unscrupulous Texan and Kennedy’s running mate, gave Kennedy Texas.  In one Texas polling station 4,895 voters were registered and yet 6,138 votes were cast.  LBJ was not above stuffing the ballot box in Texas.

     In Illinois, Nixon carried 93 of the state’s 102 counties, and yet lost the state by 8,858 votes.  This was due to Mayor Richard Daley who gave Kennedy the Windy City by the astonishing margin of 450,000 votes, and the evidence was overwhelming that fraud was committed on a large scale in Kennedy’s favor in Chicago.

     In fact, the evidence of fraud in both Texas and Illinois was so blatant that Eisenhower and other Republicans urged Nixon to issue a formal legal challenge to the election, in other words to demand a recount.  The ever-shrew Nixon declined.  He reasoned that there had never been a recount for a presidential election and the machinery for it simply did not exist.  He understood that a legal challenge would have produced a “constitutional nightmare” (a glimpse of which we received exactly forty years later).  Nixon bided his time, and eight years later was elected.

     In Newsweek two weeks ago the columnist Anna Quindlen put into perspective the 2000 election, “Every vote counts.  This is the most important thing you’ve learned from this election, and it will be part of your heart for the rest of your lives.  Government by the people.  Democracy at work.  Your vote is important.”