Florida shouldn't worry about blowing its electoral vote deadline; Hawaii did it as recently as 1960.
The Great Florida Election Dispute of 2000 — finally nearing a close — has offered few bright spots. One might be the inevitable history lessons, discovery of new relevance in the “Corrupt Bargain” of 1824 and the Hayes-Tilden dispute of 1876. Yet even as we’ve wallowed in history lately, we’ve also overlooked a fascinating story from our recent past: the Great Hawaii Election Dispute of 1960. In that saga — pieced together here from newspapers and long-neglected judicial records — a state’s certified election outcome was not only contested in court, but was ultimately, and decisively, overturned.
That story makes clear that there’s only one significant deadline in a contested presidential race: Jan. 6, when Congress meets to choose the next president.
Rewind to 1960. On Election Night, Nov. 8, in the closest presidential race of the 20th century, Sen. John F. Kennedy appears to defeat Vice President Richard M. Nixon. In Hawaii — the newest state in the union, admitted just 14 months earlier — an initial tally of the votes produces a 102-vote Kennedy victory.
The next day, however, an administrator in the lieutenant governor’s office announces that a routine review of the various precinct tally sheets shows a 200-vote error. Rather than losing the state, Nixon now actually leads by 98 votes.
Because of the error, Lt. Gov. James Kealoha calls for an audit (not a recount) of all the tally sheets throughout the state. By Nov. 16, Nixon leads by 141 votes: 92,505 to 92,364. Three days later, a front-page photo in the Christian Science Monitor shows Kealoha holding up the results, which he has certified on behalf of the state of Hawaii.
Immediately, Democrats demand a recount. After all, they know that the Republicans, led by their national chairman, Thruston B. Morton, are battling to overturn Kennedy’s victories in 11 other states. In the off-chance that Republicans should eke out upsets in Illinois and Texas (where they are fighting most avidly), Hawaii’s seemingly trivial three electors could prove decisive.
Besides, they have a compelling case: In many precincts, the number of ballots (including blanks, which today might be called “undervotes”) and the number of people who voted don’t match. Clearly, someone counted wrong.
After some legal wrangling, state Circuit Judge Ronald B. Jamieson, a Democrat, on Dec. 13 orders a recount of the 34 precincts in which the totals failed to match up. On the first day, 12 precincts are recounted, netting a single additional vote for Kennedy. Nixon’s lead stands at 140.
At that point, Republicans call attention to the “Safe Harbor” provision in federal law requiring states to choose their electors six days before the Electoral College meets. Hawaii’s attorney general calls on Jamieson to halt the recount. Jamieson denies the request.
By the time the 34 precincts are recounted on Dec. 15, Nixon’s lead stands at 50 votes. Now persuaded of the unreliability of the original counts, Jamieson orders new tallies in still more precincts — after which Kennedy regains the lead, by 21 votes, on Dec. 17.
On Dec. 19, with the court case ongoing, state electors meet in their respective capitals around the nation. Three hundred vote for Kennedy, 219 for Nixon and 15 for Dixiecrat Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia. In Honolulu, the three Republican electors enter voting booths in the throne room of the Iolani Palace and vote for Nixon; then the three Democratic electors do the same for Kennedy. In news articles the next day, neither candidate is credited with receiving Hawaii’s three votes.
Back in the courtroom, Jamieson orders the rest of Hawaii’s 240 precincts to be double-checked, and — three days after Christmas — Kennedy is finally proclaimed the official winner by a margin of 115 votes. Oliver P. Soares, the Republican lawyer on the case and a Nixon elector, moves to declare the election invalid because of fraud, since a sample ballot had turned up among the state’s official ballots. (Jamieson, the New York Times notes, has the power to nullify the entire election and order a new vote.) But the judge rules that the appearance of the stray ballot was an innocent accident and that Kennedy’s victory should stand.
The next day, Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, tweaks the GOP for what the Times describes as “their many and unsuccessful demands for recounts since the election.” The Republicans, Salinger notes, “announced that they were going to seek recounts in 11 states. We sought a recount in one state. The recount in the one state … turned from Republican to Democrat. And nothing happened at all in the 11 states the Republicans asked for recounts in.”
On Jan. 6, 1961, a joint session of Congress meets to confirm the electoral vote count. When Hawaii’s turn comes in the alphabetical roll call, the congressional tellers note that they have conflicting documents, since the initial certified document for Nixon remains in their possession, along with the newer certification for Kennedy. But Hawaii’s Gov. William F. Quinn, a Republican, has furnished an affidavit endorsing the judge’s ruling that the most recent document should count, and the final decision to award Hawaii’s three electors to Kennedy is made by the man presiding over the joint session, outgoing Vice President Richard M. Nixon.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
David Greenberg is a professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of "Nixon’s Shadow" and "Calvin Coolidge." In 2010-11, he is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. More David Greenberg.
More Related Stories
- Is the Environmental Defense Fund ruining environmentalism?
- Top 5 investigative videos of the week: "Winning" Afghanistan
- Jester clowns Westboro Baptist Church
- GOP: Party of crybabies
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Guantánamo prisoner on hunger strike cries for help on Twitter
- 3 possible solutions to international tax avoidance
- “I just want the U.S. to send my father home”
- Army weapons engineer tied to white nationalist organizations
- Ted Cruz against the world
- David Vitter's hypocritical, punitive, horrible new amendment
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- Could hackers destroy the U.S. power grid?
- Democrats may be even worse than Republicans at regulating Wall Street
- Eric Holder versus journalism
- A progressive defense of drones
- There's no substitute for government disaster relief
- Holder signed off on search warrant for reporter
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- Closing Gitmo is not enough
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11