Congressional Republicans are trying to stop the body from certifying Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election. Congress makes this certification on January 6 and by all accounts is expected to do so but with a bit of a delay while Republicans make their case that something about the November 2020 presidential election was suspect. A group of Republican senators is trying to get a voter fraud commission in exchange for their support, engaging in lawmaking-by-hostage-taking of the worst sort, but it seems clear that there isn’t widespread support for blocking the results, which only technically need a majority of both houses.
The drama of it all might make you think this is a new, once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. You would be wrong. Congress has had its fingers in the presidential election time and time again.
In case you’re counting, this is the third presidential election and the first in which the winner didn’t win unanimously. John Adams defeated Thomas Jefferson 71-68, but Vermont’s four electoral votes were not properly filed with Congress. On a technicality, Jefferson could have sought to have those votes invalidated, which would have thrown the election to the House of Representatives. Jefferson, however, did not do this, and he won outright in 1800.
The original system was that the winner gets to be president and the first runner-up gets to be vice president and this was immediately broken, because in 1796 Jefferson became Adams’ vice president and spent the next four years harassing him from inside his own administration. Aware that this could be a problem, the framers included a provision for each elector to vote twice – but not necessarily, like, once for president and once for vice president. Just twice. In 1800, electors voted once for Jefferson and once for Aaron Burr, who was the Democratic-Republican choice for vice president.
As dramatized in Hamilton: An American Musical, Burr and Jefferson tied in the electoral college, sending the race to the House where the Federalists were torn as to whether to back Jefferson or Burr (their own candidate, John Adams, came in third). In the end, the decision was made to support Jefferson over Burr.
The Twelfth Amendment, enacted in 1804, separated the presidential and vice presidential electoral votes. But of the two contested elections so far, both had resulted in unclear results from the Electoral Colleges.
The 1804 presidential election saw a lot more popular voting and, ultimately, Jefferson and George Clinton (who had replaced Burr after Burr did that thing Burr did) won in a landslide.
We get a period of relative stability here. Two decades. And then –
Nobody won the 1824 presidential election.
See, you have to win a majority of the electoral vote in order to win the presidency. Currently that’s 270 votes; in 1824, it was 131. Andrew Jackson won 99, John Quincy Adams won 84, William Crawford won 41, and Henry Clay won 37.
In a pluralistic sense, Jackson won. He won the most electoral votes and the most states and 41.4% of the popular vote. But he fell far short of a majority, and the election went to the House. There, Clay successfully pushed for states to abandon him and support Adams, who won.
Adams nominated Clay to serve as U.S. Secretary of State, which outraged some who assumed this was the product of a “corrupt bargain.” At the time, Secretary of State was akin to the heir apparent – moreso than the vice presidency – and Clay’s appointment was treated as proof that Adams had somehow bought his support. In reality, its probably a mix of appreciation for securing Adams’ victory and the fact that they had ideologically similar views. Either way, Adams lost re-election in 1828 because Jackson was able to convince voters that Clay’s appointment was proof of Adams’ corruption.
There’s a graphic making the rounds currently that claims that southern senators refused to recognize Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 victory and were expelled from Congress for it. That’s not quite accurate though.
Southern senators absolutely recognized that Lincoln had won the 1860 election and that’s why they and their states were leaving the union. Seven states declared independence before Lincoln assumed the presidency on March 4, 1861. Jefferson Davis was actually inaugurated as the confederate president before Lincoln was inaugurated as the actual president.
Lincoln’s election is widely viewed as the spark of the American Civil War. His name did not appear on southern ballots and he won just 40% of the popular vote, but he carried the most populous states – New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio – which gave him an overwhelming majority of electoral college votes. For southerners (especially southern slaveholders, but also everyday southerners), this was proof that the political power of the north was overwhelming and they could not depend on the union to protect their political or economic interests which, to be clear, were “owning people who do work for you.”
I include the 1860 election here specifically because Congress didn’t intervene, since that was so key to how southern leaders viewed secession. If Congress wasn’t going to protect them against tyrannical and popularly-elected dictators like Abraham Lincoln, then they had to leave. As theologian James Henley Thornwell put it in 1854, the Republican Party was filled with “atheists, socialists, communists,” and fought against “friends of order and regulated freedom… In one word, the world is the battleground – Christianity and Atheism the combatants; and the progress of humanity at stake.” If Congress wasn’t going to stand up to “red republicans” then the south was going to leave.
The “leaving” thing didn’t work out for the south, you might recall from history, and eventually famed U.S. war leader Ulysses S. Grant became president. In 1876, the selection of his successor was at hand, but who would it be?
Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won 165 electoral votes while his rival, Democrat Samuel Tilden, won 184. Tilden was one vote shy of victory but there was a problem: Florida.
The Florida Republican Party proclaimed that Hayes had won the state, while the Florida Democratic Party proclaimed that Tilden had won. Similar problems cropped up in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon. Tilden won the popular vote by more than 250,000 additional votes, but it was unclear how to resolve the state-level problems and determine who really had won the electoral votes.
Congress created a special commission to investigate and determine how to award the electoral votes in those states. But the commission didn’t really do that. Instead, it cut a deal: Hayes would win the presidency but the federal government would end Reconstruction, the federally-supervised rebuilding of the south, and would allow states to take over. Ending Reconstruction would lead to a new era of voter and civil rights suppression that would remain the status quo in the south for nearly a century. But, hey, Hayes got to be president.
I’m just going to copy this verbatim from the Senate Historical Office:
Grover Cleveland pulled off an upset victory in 1884, defeating James Blaine in a race for the presidency and breaking 25 years of Republican control of the White House. Four years later, Cleveland remained the Democratic standard-bearer, but the Republican candidacy was up for grabs. After a long evening and multiple ballots, the Republican convention nominated a one-term senator from Indiana, Benjamin Harrison—the grandson of President William Henry Harrison.
To promote Harrison to the presidency, Republicans turned to Senator Matthew Quay, the powerful political boss of Pennsylvania. Described as the “ablest politician this country has ever produced,” Quay was a shrewd operator who enjoyed the game of politics and, as one biographer noted, “possessed a keen eye for detecting the enemy’s weak points.” In 1888, he was the ideal man to chair the Republican National Committee.
Senator Quay understood that victory in this election depended upon the key state of New York and its 36 electoral votes. He also knew that New York City was controlled by the political machine of Tammany Hall, notorious for stuffing ballot boxes and altering election returns. One division of the city’s sixth ward, for example, with a population of 850, once produced 934 votes. According to Quay, that was more votes than the division’s combined population of “men, women, children…and dogs.” Quay was convinced that Cleveland’s 1884 presidential victory had been the result of vote manipulation in New York City. He was determined that it would not happen again.
To combat the influence of Tammany Hall, Matt Quay devised an ingenious plan. He set up an office in Manhattan, ostensibly to create what he called a “city directory” as a strictly business venture with no political purpose. For months, Quay’s agents quietly canvassed the streets of New York, attracting little attention—from the press or the political opposition. Collecting data and mapping districts—block by block, house by house—they compiled a comprehensive list of every eligible voter in New York City.
Two weeks before election day, Quay revealed his strategy. “I have the names of the bona fide voters of every election district in New York,” he proclaimed. “If any fraud is attempted on election day, we are not only in position to detect it, but we will see to it that the guilty go to prison.” As a final safeguard, Quay arranged to have certified copies of all election returns delivered to him just as the originals went to city hall. If any returns were altered by Tammany operatives, he’d know it—and report it.
Quay’s strategy did not stop Grover Cleveland from squeaking out a victory in heavily Democratic New York City, but it did limit the city’s margin of victory to so few votes that Benjamin Harrison carried the state and won the presidency on November 6, 1888. Matt Quay was crowned as kingmaker. “Providence has given us this victory,” sighed a grateful Benjamin Harrison, prompting kingmaker Quay to respond: “Providence hadn’t a damn thing to do with it.”
It’s a while before we get another serious Congressional intervention into the presidential election, because for a while elections seem like more transparent affairs. But the hotly contested 2000 election leads to a hotly contested moment in the nation’s capitol.
The Congressional Black Caucus attempted to block certification over issues regarding the vote count in Florida. But no senator would join them – a requirement to raise concerns over certifying the result – and the Senate leader, Al Gore (who was Bush’s rival in the election) certified the result.
A similar event occurred in 2016 when House Democrats, led by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), tried to block the certification of president-elect Donald Trump’s victory. Waters said that evidence of Russian interference in the election raised concerns about whether Trump might have colluded with the Russian government, something later determined to be more or less false. Once again, no senators would join House members, and Joe Biden certified the result. Biden wasn’t Trump’s 2016 opponent, but he would be the 2020 opponent, and:
A major difference between 2020 and the previous two efforts is that Republican Senators are joining their House colleagues in moving to block certification. That means a drawn-out day of discussion before Congress votes to certify the results.
But certification is inevitable. Biden’s victory was substantial and Democrats control the House of Representatives. Enough Senate Republicans have forcefully condemned or at least passively criticized the effort to block certification that its clear that Biden isn’t in any real danger here.
One might hope, though, that this is a clear message for the new administration: Republicans are not going to have a change of heart, they’re not going to fall in love with you.