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Waking the morning after a presidential election and still not knowing who won is an unfamiliar feeling in the United States. But it’s not that unusual, says David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies and an expert on American political and cultural history, including the presidency.

Greenberg talked to Rutgers Today about other close elections in history and how the media should handle a president who has declared victory before the ballots have all been counted.

When was the last time the presidential election could not be called on election night and how many other times has it happened in history? What is the longest it has ever taken to decide a presidential election (or any election)?

First, let’s remember that “Election Night” is a 20th-century development. We didn’t even have a single national election day until it was put into place by an act of Congress in 1845. And there was no mass broadcasting until the 1920s. So at the least, people had to wait until their morning newspapers.

But it’s often been the case that the outcome isn’t known on Election Day proper. I’m sure everyone remembers the election of 2000, which took a month to decide, after recounts and court cases in Florida. And even races that were not quite so close often have been officially “called” by the Associated Press only the next day.

And if you think waiting now is hard, imagine being an American in 1876. That election wasn't settled until March of 1877! (Back then presidents were inaugurated on March 5, not January 20.)

How is this election different from any other in history in terms of the way people voted and how the votes are being counted, and is that fueling the uncertainty?

The unprecedented number of mail-in ballots, owing to the pandemic, makes this election different from all the others. Because some key states are not allowed to start counting those ballots until Election Day, it will just take several days to count.

How many times has the election outcome been determined by another body including the courts or Congress?

According to the Constitution, the Electoral College chooses the president. If no candidate gets a majority in the Electoral College, Congress decides (with each state getting one vote). Twice – in 1800 and 1824 – the House ended up choosing the president. Then there was the 1876 election, which was essentially decided by a special commission. And in 2000, the Supreme Court blocked a vote recount in Florida that was likely to have shown Al Gore to be the rightful winner. In practice, the Electoral College still “decided” that one, but without the Supreme Court’s intervention, the Electoral College would probably have voted differently.

Was there ever a time that a presidential candidate declared victory, or was declared the winner, and then had it change? How about the famous Dewey defeats Truman headline?

There have been incorrect or premature claims of victory before, but usually the candidates know enough not to go overboard. Al Gore placed a concession call to George Bush on Election Night in 2000, and then had to withdraw his concession. (The concession is a formality, not legally binding.) With New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, he was predicted – wrongly – to beat President Truman in 1948 and newspapers ran headlines with the wrong news.

President Trump has declared himself the winner, but votes are still being counted? How should the media handle the dichotomy?

Easy. They should simply say that Trump does not have the authority or power to make himself the winner. Our laws are very clear that the votes have to be counted. Sometimes, with mail-in ballots, this takes a few days.

 

David Greenberg is a professor of history in the School of Arts and Sciences and journalism and media studies at the School of Communication and Information, both at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.