What's the rush?

Florida shouldn't worry about blowing its electoral vote deadline; Hawaii did it as recently as 1960.


David Greenberg
December 14, 2000 5:16AM (UTC)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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David Greenberg

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.

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