The Founding Fathers set up the Electoral College to ensure a well-informed, geographically diverse group of electors would choose the nation’s presidents.
That sounds rational – and sometimes it even works.
But the history of the Electoral College also includes tales of tie votes, hanging chads, conniving politicians and intrigue.
A look at four elections when controversy reigned:
1800: THE TIE
It’s the last thing you want in an election: a tie.
The framers of the Constitution didn’t quite think that through when they failed to provide for separate ballots for president and vice president.
Under the original Electoral College system, the top vote-getter was to become president and the runner-up would become vice president.
In the 1800 election, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran in tandem, with Jefferson the presumed head of the ticket. Each got 73 votes in the Electoral College.
The tie threw the election to the House and set off months of maneuvering and mischief. It took the House – then with members from 16 states – 36 ballots over seven days in 1801 to elect Jefferson president and Burr his vice president.
To avoid a repeat, the 12th Amendment was ratified in 1804, specifying that electors would vote separately for president and vice president.
The 1800 election marked the first peaceful transfer of power between political parties in U.S. history.
1824: HOUSE CALL – AGAIN
Andrew Jackson came out of the 1824 election with the most popular and electoral votes after a four-way campaign. But Jackson’s 99 electoral votes were well shy of the 131 then necessary to become president.
With that, the election went to the House.
House Speaker William Clay, the fourth-place finisher, was eliminated because the Constitution limits the choice to the top three candidates. With no rules for the House balloting, the chamber decided that each state’s vote should reflect the preference of the majority of its congressmen.
Deal-making, backroom lobbying and bitter recriminations quickly commenced.
Clay, out of the running, was determined to serve as kingmaker, and threw his support to John Quincy Adams, who had finished second. Rumors swirled that Clay had been promised the State Department in return.
In the end, the deciding ballot came down to New York’s Stephen Van Rensselaer, who voted for John Quincy Adams on the first ballot and sent him to the White House. Rensselaer said he’d noticed a ballot for Adams on the floor when he bowed his head to pray, and took it as a sign from heaven, according to an account by Norman Ornstein in the book “After the People Vote.”
Clay was later named secretary of State.
Jackson was incensed, writing to friends, “Was there ever such a barefaced corruption in any country before?”
Four years later, Jackson got his revenge when he defeated Adams.
1876: ‘HIS FRAUDULENCY’
Anyone remember Samuel Tilden? In 1876, he thought he’d been elected president.
Tilden, the Democratic governor of New York, won the popular vote that year but Ohio Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes claimed the presidency based on electoral votes.
At first it looked like Tilden had things sewn up: He led 184 to 165 in electoral votes with 20 votes outstanding and 185 required to win. Hayes went to bed on election night thinking he’d lost.
But Republican Party leaders put pressure on electors in the remaining states, and South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana each sent conflicting electoral returns to Washington.
Months of controversy ensued, with charges of bribery, forgery and ballot-box stuffing on both sides. President Ulysses Grant dispatched troops to keep the peace as votes were tabulated. It took a special bipartisan electoral commission to settle matters, with Hayes ultimately elected by a margin of one electoral vote.
Hayes’ mandate was so narrow that he was called “His Fraudulency.” He kept the promise he made in his inaugural address to serve only one term.
Tilden urged his supporters to recognize Hayes as the legitimate president but “nonetheless believed until his death that he had been duly elected president,” according to Ornstein’s account.
To avoid a rerun of that mess, Congress passed legislation giving states authority to determine the validity of their electors. In the future, a majority of both houses of Congress would be required to reject electoral votes.
2000: 537 VOTES
Vice President Al Gore won the national popular vote by more than a half-million ballots over George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential contest, but was defeated in the Electoral College after the Supreme Court stopped a hotly debated recount in Florida.
Bush claimed 271 electoral votes – just one vote more than needed to prevail – after he was certified as the winner in Florida by a scant 537 votes.
It took until Dec. 12, more than five weeks after Election Day, to reach that conclusion.
The Supreme Court said the Florida recount violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because counties were allowed to set their own standards for determining whether to count a vote.
As the laborious recount of punch-card ballots played out, “pregnant chad” entered the political lexicon.
The punch cards – and their chads – have since been banned in Florida.
It was all a fresh reminder of the Founding Fathers’ complicated plan for picking presidents.
Republished with permission of The Associated Press.