Americans accustomed to learning on election night who their next president will be may mistakenly think, along with President Donald Trump, that the law requires a winner to be proclaimed that evening.
“I think it’s terrible when we can’t know the results of an election the night of an election in a modern-day age of computers,” said Trump, who also vowed to challenge the results in court.
But there is nothing in the Constitution or federal law that says the winner must be determined in the hours immediately after the polls close. And for much of American history, that would have been impossible.
The outcome of many presidential elections remained unresolved for days, weeks and – in one case – months.
In fact, in the early days of the republic, there was no single Election “Day.” States determined when they held their elections. Congress passed legislation in 1845 requiring the selection of presidential electors to occur on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
Election Day – and election night – was born. But it did not produce immediate clarity.
In 1848, the first presidential election held under the new law, the New York Herald reported on the day after the presidential election that the “probable result” was a landslide win by Whig candidate Zachary Taylor over Democrat Lewis Cass. The Herald was half right: Taylor won, but with only 47.3% of the vote to Cass’s 42.5%. The big story of the election was the 10.1% received by the anti-slavery Free-Soil Party led by former president Martin Van Buren.
Several factors clouded 19th-century election results. Newspapers depended on the telegraph for information and typically went to press with incomplete results. They often reported on returns through a partisan prism that downplayed unfavorable trends for their favored candidate. Vote-counting could be excruciatingly slow.
When the election was a landslide – as in 1872 when President Ulysses S. Grant walloped Democratic candidate Horace Greeley – the result was clear. But the partisan equilibrium of the Gilded Age produced one agonizingly close election after another, many of which went days before a winner could be determined.
This one was historic. Americans waited four months before learning the outcome of the election. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was not certified as the winner of the election (by one electoral vote, although he received fewer votes than Democrat Samuel Tilden) until March 2, three days before he was inaugurated in Washington.
Democrat Grover Cleveland faced Republican James G. Blaine in a campaign whose outcome depended on New York, where vote totals came in with agonizing slowness. “It took more than a week,” historian Mark Wahlgren Summers has written, for Democrats to be sure that their candidate carried the Empire State and won the election.
Four years later, Cleveland found himself in another nail-biter, this time against Republican Benjamin Harrison. Although the Los Angeles Herald published a wire story two days after the voting indicating that a Harrison victory appeared probable, the paper hedged its bets with a headline – “A Game of Guess” – that suggested the election was still up in the air. Harrison was elected but fell just short of winning a majority of the popular vote.
Election night uncertainty continued into the 20th century.
More than two weeks passed before the election pitting Democratic President Woodrow Wilson against Republican Charles Evan Hughes was settled. “Presidential Vote Very Close; Both Parties Claiming Victory,” read the banner headline across the top of The Washington Post on Nov. 8, the morning after the election. Despite returns in the days that followed showing Wilson ahead, enough uncertainty remained to keep Hughes from formally conceding defeat until Nov. 22.
Conventional wisdom, backed by polling, tabbed Republican Thomas E. Dewey as the likely winner over President Truman on Nov. 2. It seemed so probable that the headline on The Washington Post’s Election Day story read: “Dewey Deemed Sure Winner Today.” The Chicago Tribune, forced into an early press run because of a printer’s strike according to a history of the newspaper, splashed a banner headline across its Nov. 3 front page that declared “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
That’s not how things turned out. Returns coming in on election night showed a competitive race whose outcome, as The Post went to press, was uncertain. “Truman Takes Slight Early Lead in Both Popular and Electoral Votes,” The Post headline on Tuesday’s results read. The president’s narrow lead proved durable. Dewey stayed up until 8:30 a.m. Nov. 3 poring over the returns before taking a two-hour nap, studying the vote counts one final time, and sending a congratulatory telegram to Truman, United Press reported.
Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy held a narrow lead over Republican Vice President Richard Nixon as returns came during the evening of Nov. 8 and into the early morning hours of Nov. 9. The battleground state of Illinois swung back and forth until late returns from Chicago put Illinois in Kennedy’s column. Although Republicans from President Eisenhower on down wanted Nixon to challenge the returns, Nixon conceded defeat in a telegram released Nov. 9.
Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican President Gerald Ford closed a hard-fought campaign with an election night that dragged into the next morning before Carter could claim the presidency. Carter’s victory in Mississippi – no Democrat has carried the state since – put the peanut farmer and former Georgia governor over the top at 4 a.m. Eastern time, The Post’s David Broder reported.
Democratic Vice President Al Gore and Texas Republican Gov. George W. Bush squared off in the most bitterly contested election since 1876. Election night came down to Florida, whose electoral votes would put one of the candidates into the White House, but confusion regarding the outcome in the Sunshine State continued for more than a month. On Dec. 12, a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision ended recounts in Florida and effectively gave the election to Bush.
Of course, not all elections have been cliffhangers. Perhaps the most lopsided came in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan easily defeated Democrat Walter Mondale. Reagan carried 49 states, losing only Minnesota and the District of Columbia to Mondale.
CBS election night coverage began at 6:30 p.m., The Post’s Tom Shales reported. “Dan Rather and CBS News crowned Ronald Reagan president of the United States again, just after 8 o’clock, and about 52 minutes later Rather declared, ‘Walter Mondale has seen the light at the end of the tunnel – and it’s out,’ ” Shales wrote. “Life can be cruel, and so can anchormen.”