When the Supreme Court Decided The Election Through History

By | November 12, 2020

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An outside view of the US Supreme Court. (Yegor Aleyev\TASS via Getty Images)

You've got to hand it to the Founding Fathers. When they wrote the U.S. Constitution, they put some clever rules in place to ensure a fair election process in which every vote counts. As part of the checks and balances system that prevents one branch of government from getting too powerful, the judicial branch—specifically, the Supreme Court—can play (and has played) a role in determining the outcome of a contentious presidential election. In fact, the Supreme Court decided elections twice in U.S. history.

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Hayes/Wheeler campaign poster for the 1876 presidential ticket. (Currier & Ives/Wikimedia Commons)

The Election Of 1876

After the presidential race of 1876 that pitted Republican Rutherford B. Hayes against Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, the latter had secured the popular vote, but four states—Oregon, Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina—were too close to call. That was a big deal, because the 19 electoral votes from those states could have swayed the whole election. 

The next step, according to the laws of the time, was to let Congress decide the winner. That was an equally sticky situation, however, because in 1876, the Republicans controlled the Senate and the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. Naturally, they failed to reach a decision, so they formed a bipartisan electoral committee of five senators and five Supreme Court Justices to decide the result of the 1876 election.

For weeks, the committee also remained deadlocked, with all members voting along party lines. Finally, after much discussion and most likely some back room political deals, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley flipped, and the committee awarded the disputed electoral votes to Hayes.