If Trump refuses to accept defeat in November, the republic will survive intact, as it has 5 out of 6 times in the past

Trump has refused to say he will accept the outcome of the upcoming election. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump refused to promise to accept the results of the election. Likewise, in 2020, his continued assault on the reliability and legitimacy of mail-in voting has laid the groundwork for challenging a loss on the basis of voter fraud. He has also refused to promise to observe the 2020 results.

This has led some to worry that a contested election would severely undermine faith in American democracy.

Yet the United States has a long history of such contested elections. With one exception, they have not badly damaged the American political system.

That contested 1860 election – which sparked the Civil War – happened in a unique context. As a political scientist who studies elections, I believe that, should President Trump – or less likely, Joe Biden – contest the results of the November election, American democracy will survive.

Joe Biden.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

Legitimacy and peaceful transitions

Most contested presidential elections have not posed threats to the legitimacy of government.

Legitimacy, or the collective acknowledgment that government has a right to rule, is essential to a democracy. In a legitimate system, unpopular policies are largely accepted because citizens believe that government has the right to make them. For example, a citizen may despise taxes but still admit that they are lawful. Illegitimate systems, which are not supported by citizens, can collapse or descend into revolution.

In democracies, elections generate legitimacy because citizens contribute to the selection of leadership.

In the past, contested elections have not badly damaged the fabric of democracy because the rules for handling such disputes exist and have been followed. While politicians and citizens alike have howled about the unfairness of loss, they accepted these losses.

Contested elections and continuity

In 1800, both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received the same number of votes in the Electoral College. Because no candidate won a clear majority of Electoral votes, the House of Representatives followed the Constitution and convened a special session to resolve the impasse by a vote. It took 36 ballots to give Jefferson the victory, which was widely accepted.

In 1824, Andrew Jackson won a plurality of the popular and electoral vote against John Quincy Adams and two other candidates, but failed to win the necessary majority in the Electoral College. The House, again following the procedure set in the Constitution, selected Adams as the winner over Jackson.

The 1876 election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden was contested because several Southern states failed to clearly certify a winner. This was resolved through inter-party negotiation conducted by an Electoral Commission established by Congress. While Hayes would become president, concessions were given to the South that effectively ended Reconstruction.

The contest between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon in 1960 was rife with allegations of voter fraud, and Nixon supporters pressed for aggressive recounts in many states. In the end, Nixon begrudgingly accepted the decision rather than drag the country through civil discord during the intense U.S.-Soviet tensions of the Cold War.

Finally, in 2000, GOP candidate George W. Bush and Democratic candidate Al Gore tangled over disputed ballots in Florida. The Supreme Court terminated a recount effort and Gore publicly conceded, recognizing the legitimacy of Bush’s victory by saying, “While I strongly disagree with the Court’s decision, I accept it.”

In each case, the losing side was unhappy with the result of the election. But in each case, the loser accepted the legally derived result, and the American democratic political system persisted.

The system collapses

The election of 1860 was a different story.

After Abraham Lincoln defeated three other candidates, Southern states simply refused to accept the results. They viewed the selection of a president who would not protect slavery as illegitimate and ignored the election’s results.

It was only through the profoundly bloody Civil War that the United States remained intact. The dispute over the legitimacy of this election, based in fundamental differences between the North and South, cost 600,000 American lives.

Dead Confederate soldiers lying on the ground in Gettysburg.

The contested 1860 presidential election led to the Civil War, where 600,000 died, including these Confederate soldiers at in Gettysburg’s ‘the devil’s den,’ June or July 1863. (Alexander Gardner, photographer/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

What is the difference between the political collapse of 1860 and the continuity of other contested elections? In all cases, citizens were politically divided and elections were hotly contested.

What makes 1860 stand out so clearly is that the country was divided over the moral question of slavery, and this division followed geographic lines that enabled a revolution to form. Further, the Confederacy was reasonably unified across class lines.

While the America of today is certainly divided, the distribution of political beliefs is far more dispersed and complex than the ideological cohesion of the Confederacy.

[Insight, in your inbox each day. You can get it with The Conversation’s email newsletter.]

Rule of law

History suggests, then, that even if Trump or Biden contest the election, the results would not be catastrophic.

The Constitution is clear on what would happen: First, the president cannot simply declare an election invalid. Second, voting irregularities could be investigated by the states, who are responsible for managing the integrity of their electoral processes. This seems unlikely to change any reported results, as voter fraud is extraordinarily rare.

The next step could be an appeal to the Supreme Court or suits against the states. To overturn any state’s initial selection, evidence of a miscount or voter fraud would have to be strongly established.

If these attempts to contest the election fail, on Inauguration Day, the elected president would lawfully assume the office. Any remaining ongoing contestation would be moot after this point, as the president would have full legal authority to exercise the powers of his office, and could not be removed short of impeachment.

While the result of the 2020 election is sure to make many citizens unhappy, I believe rule of law will endure. The powerful historical, social, and geographic forces that produced the total failure of 1860 simply are not present.

Alexander Cohen, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Clarkson University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


CT-Patriot September 5, 2020 at 7:04 am

Oh but there is this….

“Joe Biden should not concede under any circumstances, because I think this is going to drag out, and eventually I do believe he will win if we don’t give an inch, and if we are as focused and relentless as the other side is,”

Republicans are not pushing the mail in ballot controversy. Everyone knows now that mail in ballots are ripe with fraud.

The whole purpose is to get the media never to announce that President Trump has won reelection from projected polls. No, they will stay mute and drag it out throughout the evening.

Then, as days progress, the Democratic machine will contest every poll, every mail in ballot for as long as possible to change the vote in their favor.

This is exactly what has been openly discussed and should frighten every citizen.

Come election day and evening, you mark my words that major media will not call a winner. Doesn’t matter if President Trump wins the electoral college in a landslide.

Bryan Meek September 5, 2020 at 12:30 pm

Hillary and the DNC haven’t accepted defeat going on 4 years now so you know we can expect more of the same when Trump wins again thanks to the DNCs war on police and decent society.

There are over 1000 well documented cases of proven voter fraud now, which makes it more than statistically significant, not “extraordinarily rare”.

We still don’t even have all the data from the primary last month, and we are under questionably legal executive orders, so please forgive some of us who don’t believe our laws matter much anymore.

Michael McGuire September 5, 2020 at 7:18 pm

Seems ridiculous to espouse a voting format that will clearly create confusion with the Election Process/outcome. Sure allow those who are at high risk to have absentee ballots if they so choose.. But the rest of us…….to quote Joe Biden ‘ come on man’ as in how dumb is that.

This nation needs clarity now. Time to take the power away from the power brokers and return it the citizens.

CT-Patriot September 6, 2020 at 5:07 pm

The problem with mail in ballots currently is that they are mailed out to every registered voter from mostly outdated voter registration lists.

Then there is this article which is fully vetted.


Currently, it’s much smarter to go to your assigned polling location and cast your vote.

Now, with known issues with mail in ballots, more Democratic operatives are massing lawyers, disruptions and mayhem if the current voting method ends with an overwhelming majority of the electoral college to Donald Trump.

Democrats and RINO Republicans have a plan in place:


This is serious and also upsetting that elections cannot continue in the same fashion years ago to prevent such an event even when the citizens have spoken and we can move on with our Republic honoring the results at the end of election day.

Sue Haynie September 7, 2020 at 7:50 am

Hillary Clinton and the Democrats have questioned Trump’s legitimacy since he was democratically elected in 2016. If Trump wins in 2020, which I believe is highly possible, it is the Democrats, not Trump who I fear questioning the results of the election.

The Democrats, from 2016-2020, have turned bad-sportsmanship and whining into an depraved art form.

Sue Haynie September 7, 2020 at 7:54 am

Nancy on Norwalk. In all fairness during this election season, as a journalist– you should also post an alternative scenario—if Biden loses, will he (and his Democratic handlers) accept defeat?

Here from the WSJ: Will Democrats Accept Another Trump Victory? Every time they’ve lost since 1968, they’ve called it illegitimate—except for the 49-state landslides. By Barton Swaim July 10, 2020

Norwalker September 7, 2020 at 9:39 am

So when is the story about how Hillary Clinton and most Democrats still have not accepted the results of the 2016 election? And Hillary and the Democrats have already declared that they will NOT accept the results of this election if their candidate loses. The bias reporting and hypocrisy is so obvious and unprofessional it’s sickening.

Sue Haynie September 7, 2020 at 6:04 pm

Nancy. I understand you can’t post WSJ articles, I used it as an example of an opposing opinion out there. But frankly, I wonder why you posted this screed which is clearly political and one-sided and you didn’t search for an article that treats this subject fairly? Why incite more division Or, if you post a biased article like this, also post an article with an opposing scenario, namely one where Biden, Harris and the Democratic leadership doesn’t accept defeat.

It’s your website, you can Obviously do what you want, but I’m personally a lot more afraid of the Democratic’s hissy fit antics when they lose than I am of Trumps.

Thomas Belmont September 7, 2020 at 8:32 pm

When old slow joe loses the Manchurian Democrats will refuse the results, even a landslide. What do we do then? Manchurian Lawyers suing Trump and the Government and an endless barrage of adolescent emotional outbursts that will make all of us deplorables vomit. More Manchurian Leftist’s delays on Making America Great Again.

JustaTaxpayer September 7, 2020 at 8:41 pm

We had the hanging chad scenarios in Gore vs Bush. It’s so blatant that one political party will latch on to anything to defeat the other.

If this part of the web can have a Clarkson’s professor’s opinion, there’s no doubt someone out there (and without the needed permission from the WSJ) with a cogent message of how problematic mail in voting will be. Many Americans watch the weekly challenges to this President. I wonder what Robert Moeller is doing these days.

How about a summary of what BLM really stands for. It’s all right out there to read.

Mitch Adis September 7, 2020 at 9:54 pm

Democrats have already said they will not accept a Trump victory in November. Why should they? The fix is in with mail in votes. Trump will win on election night, but will lose a week later. So, will Joe Biden concede on election night or will he hold out until they can generate enough votes to win?

CT-Patriot September 8, 2020 at 9:19 pm

And what do you think was delivered today in my mailbox?

Well, it is an absentee ballot form.

Look, if I need one, I’d ask for one.

Where the hell does this governor think it’s his prerogative to treat the citizens of Connecticut like children?

There is nothing wrong going to your polling location and casting your vote. If someone needs an absentee ballot, well, they can request one.

Covid-19 did not turn the citizens of Connecticut to babbling idiots.

Governor Lamont…leave us alone. If we need your assistance I’m sure we can ask.

Just another example of just how Democrats are willing to stay in power at all costs.

Let’s all go back to the mechanical lever voting booths. At least back then, no one had the hair brain idea to do vote by mail.

Watch the dates between December 8 to December 14. That’s when things will get ugly if this election is being portrayed. December 14 all states must submit their electoral votes by then or they are forfeited. Between December 8 to the 14 will be the chaos dates mark my word.

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