Op-ed: A delay in general election results will not be unprecedented

The word “unprecedented” gets thrown around a lot these days.

The novel coronavirus and its widespread impact are often called “unprecedented.” Of course, these are NOT without precedent. There have been many viruses and plagues which have beset mankind over the millennia. Many have been much more deadly than the virus we’re faced with (so far), and let’s hope it stays that way!

Every four years, the U.S. holds a presidential election. And, predictably, every election is referred to by someone, as being “the most important in American history.” It’s possible that each election gets more and more important with the passing of time. But I’d be hard-pressed to think of an election more important than the one in 1860, in which the nation was teetering on the brink over slavery. The results of that election, in fact, led to the south seceding and the Civil War beginning.

Or what about the election of 1796? The nation’s first president, George Washington, had decided that he should not seek election to a third term in office. This truly WAS “unprecedented.” Perhaps never in recorded human history, had the undisputed leader of an entire nation stepped down, not due to health issues or outside pressures. He simply wanted to make it clear that a president is elected and not anointed to serve in that office for life.

All of which brings us to the election of 2020.

Is it the “most important election” in the nation’s history? I’ll leave that up to historians to decide.

One thing is for certain, we may have an “unprecedented” number of mailed-in (absentee) ballots that come into courthouses all over America on Nov. 3 and for several days thereafter.

This has never been a problem before. Usually, the number of ballots postmarked by Election Day and received in the days following Election Day, is few. Each state sets its own rules on the deadline by which mailed-in (absentee) ballots may be received and counted.

Usually, the “unofficial winners” announced on TV, radio, and in newspapers on Election Night or the morning after, turn out to be the eventual winners when the votes are “canvassed,” provisional ballots are dealt with, and the final, official results are made known. Occasionally, a race is too close to call and an official winner is not named until all of the mailed-in and provisional ballots are counted.

Most folks know how close the 1960 election between Kennedy and Nixon was and that there were allegations of votes being tossed into Lake Michigan by then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. But Nixon conceded the race.

In 2000, Democrat Al Gore got 500,000 more votes than Republican George W. Bush, but Bush won the Electoral College (271-266) and the White House. Legal challenges by Gore regarding voting in Florida, wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against him.

In 2016, of course, Hillary Clinton got 3 million more votes than Donald Trump, but lost the Electoral College vote, 304-227.

But what many people may not know is that there have been even closer elections.

In 1876, the race between Ohio’s Rutherford B. Hayes and New York’s Samuel Tilden was particularly nasty. Charges of vote fraud and improper electors threw the entire race into the lap of the U.S. Congress. A 15-member Electoral Commission, was created to settle the outcome. That was “unprecedented.”

The Commission heard testimony and the entire process lasted until March, just a few days before the new president, Hayes, was to be inaugurated. Presidents are now inaugurated in January, so the time to sort things out between Election Day and Inauguration Day is much shorter than it was in 1876.

What will the election of 2020 bring?

No one can say, for certain, who will win the Presidency. It could be argued that the races for the U.S. House and Senate are just as important, if not moreso.

But one thing is certain. Whoever wins and whatever the margin of victory, there will be controversy over the results. That would have been the case even without the coronavirus. But the virus, and the overwhelming number of potential mailed-in (absentee) ballots, will be a source for controversy for days if not weeks or even years after the polls close on Nov. 3.

I would urge all citizens and voters to NOT fixate on having the “final, unofficial results” on your 11 p.m. TV newscast or Wednesday morning’s paper. It may not happen for days. Possibly even weeks.

But don’t worry. Despite what you may hear, that will NOT be “unprecedented.”

It will be in keeping with the situation created by the virus, the intense rivalry between the two parties, and the history of America.


Roger Sheppard is a Parkersburg native and former VP/GM at TheNewsCenter, which operates WTAP, WIYE and WOVA in the Mid-Ohio Valley.


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