“In this historic election.” How many times have you heard this over the past two weeks? In truth, there are some historic elements. This election had the greatest number of votes cast in history. Is that historic or population growth? It’s also a higher voter percentage than we have seen in some time, but nowhere close to the highest. A woman on the winning ticket is most definitely historic, so much in fact that I am stumped on how to make a comparison. This past week most of the attention seems to be on Trump’s refusal to admit defeat. But that is not historic either. Many have called this the most important election in our lives, whereas, in fact, it is just the most recent.
First, let’s tackle the voter turnout. At 67% voting at last count, the 2020 election is impressive for modern elections. The last time we cleared 60% was 1968. Historically, however, between 1840 and 1904 voting was always over 70% with the elections of 1856 and 1860 going over 80% and the highest election percentage of all time was 1876 with 81.8%. The elections of 1860, 1876 and 2020 have some similarities; they had either controversial figures or voting irregularities.
The increase in voting percentage is also impressive in 2020. Four years ago, 59% of the population voted, an 8% growth in 2020, one of the highest of all time. Much of this has been attributed to hatred of Trump more than fondness of Biden. Yet, when we look historically, there is not a clear pattern of controversial presidents being the reason for large differences between votes. There was a 10% jump between 1872 and 1876. Though 1876 is one of the most controversial elections, the controversy was the outcome, not the candidates. There was also a 10% jump between 1948 and 1952. Again, nothing controversial; in fact, Eisenhower was popular with both sides in 1952. Finally, the greatest difference between elections was 1836 and 1840 with a 22% increase of voter turnout. In this case it was the economic Panic of 1837 had hurt the incumbent Martin Van Buren, not anything controversial.
As for Trump’s attitude towards conceding, while annoying for the Democrats, this also is not new. Historically speaking, we do not even have to go back very far, only to 2000. Anyone old enough to have gone through this election probably remembers too well the annoyingness of new vocabulary words like “hanging chads.” The Election of 2000 saw two new candidates but with familiar names, Vice President Al Gore versus George Bush. As with 2020, it was a close election on election night and whoever won Florida would win the game. As election night came to a close and it looked as if Bush had won Florida, Gore made the concession call to Bush. However, by the next day Democrats had come out with claims of voter fraud and voter suppression in Florida, and Gore called Bush back to recant his concession. Democrats demanded a recount, which was done, but after the recount did not change the outcome, Gore demanded a recount by hand instead of by machines. The issue was that on some punch cards, the wrong names were accidently hit or were not punched properly. The recount took weeks, this time to the annoyance of Republicans. In the end, it took the Supreme Court to force the recount to end and declare Bush the winner.
Another example is the election of 1876. The election that tells us the importance of one vote. It looked as if Democrat Samuel Tilden would win the election. He had more popular votes and only needed one of the four remaining states to win, as with Biden in 2020. However, there were voting irregularities in those four remaining states. For instance, South Carolina had 101% voter turnout. Of the four states, three were southern, Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana. Why is it always Florida? Why that is important is that the Democratic Party dominated southern states so it was expected Democrats would win all three, let alone just the one needed to win. To solve the issue, Congress was forced to get involved and create a 15-man board to determine the winner. There were five congressmen, five senators, and five judges. Seven of these were Democrats and seven were Republicans with one independent. Perfectly fair, until the one independent judge resigned his position and a new judge had to be appointed. The only judges left on the court were Republicans, resulting in Republican Rutherford Hayes winning the presidency by one vote. Democrats claimed foul play but eventually agreed to the ruling when the Republicans promised to end Reconstruction in the South.
It is always good to see democracy in action and that so many took part of the election process. This was an important election in that all elections are important, However, historically speaking, neither the percentages voting nor the squabbling after the fact are anything new.
With the election past us now, I hope everyone can put politics aside for a day and enjoy your Thanksgiving. I for one am grateful I live in a country where we can have this fight about elections. Not all nations get to do this.
RIP Grandma Pruitt, your love and generosity will never be forgotten.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.