President Donald Trump is not the first candidate to contest the results of a U.S. presidential election.
Allegations of voter fraud swirled around the 1960 contest between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon. Republicans suspected that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley fraudulently delivered just enough votes to give Kennedy the state of Illinois and the presidency. But Nixon ultimately declined to pursue the matter.
“There's some evidence to suggest again that Nixon didn't want to make things that divisive,” says Alexander Cohen, assistant professor of political science at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York.
Modernized voting systems
Contested elections in America’s past have had varying degrees of impact — from minimal to devastating.
In the modern era, the hotly contested 2000 election led to updated voting systems. The outcome of the contest between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore came down to Florida and, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It turned out that much of the United States was using a punch card balloting system, which caused all kinds of problems in Florida in 2000. And, unknown to most Americans, every year thousands of ballots were getting thrown out because that punch card system was malfunctioning and also was confusing voters,” says Robert Speel, associate professor of political science at the Erie campus of Penn State University.
“Election officials knew that and hadn't told anyone and it didn't become public until that election,” he adds. “That led to the end of the punch card in the United States and Americans now use more modern voting systems.”
Then-Vice President Al Gore lost the presidency, despite winning the popular vote.
“Al Gore had an opportunity to question the legitimacy of some of those votes,” Clarkson University’s Cohen says. “There were questions about voting machines, and he chose not to because it would be damaging to democracy to keep fighting.”
The 1876 contested election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden resulted in the disenfranchisement and subjugation of formerly enslaved Black people in the American South. The impact of that continues to reverberate in the United States today.
Both parties claimed a majority in the Electoral College, but the Democratic Party – at that time favored by former Southern slave-owners – eventually conceded in exchange for a withdrawal of Union forces that had been protecting the South’s former slaves since the Civil War ended 11 years before.
“Very quickly the political leaders who had been leading in the South before the American Civil War and who had supported slavery, again rose to the top and began dominating politics again in the South … which led, by the end of the 19th century, to the loss of almost all political and social rights for African Americans,” Penn State University’s Speel says.
This ultimately set the scene for the passage of Jim Crow laws, which legalized racial segregation.
“Essentially Congress allowed a racist regime to exist in the south,” Cohen says. “How do you quantify the loss of lives, and the pain and emotional torment that came from that decision?”
In 1888, allegations of bribing voters hung over the contest between Democrat incumbent Grover Cleveland and Republican Benjamin Harrison.
In those days, ballots were distributed by the political parties and some votes were cast publicly. Some people, known as floaters, sold their votes to the highest bidder.
A letter sent by the Republican National Committee instructed operatives to divide voters into blocks of five and pay them to vote for the Republican ticket. The resulting scandal led to the end of public ballots.
“That particular election, in which there were widespread accusations of corruption, led to the adoption of the secret ballot nationwide where Americans now vote privately without people knowing how they vote,” Speel says.
Democracy at risk?
Cohen looks to the failure of democracies in Latin America and Africa when considering how questioning the integrity of the voting process can impact a nation.
“One of the things that has to happen [for democracy to fail] is people have to fundamentally not believe that the political system is fair and that it works for them, and [not believe] that their votes actually matter,” Cohen says.
“And so, once you take the position that our votes don't count because there are so many other fraudulent votes out there, you're inspiring people to revolt because you're fundamentally arguing that democracy isn't working,” he adds. “And once that starts to erode, other foundations of democracy start to erode as well.”
So far, Cohen doesn’t see that any irreparable damage has been done to the fabric of American democracy.
"We still have rule of law. We still follow the rule of law and ... so far the [Trump] campaign is following the rule of law,” he says. “They're filing briefs, they're asking specific things from judges, and the states seem to be behaving as well.”