The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland races could take days to call. The election of 1800 was worse.

John Adams, left, and Thomas Jefferson, right, competed in the contentious 1800 election. (A. Tholey/Library of Congress)
6 min

Maryland residents voted in statewide primary elections Tuesday, but it could take days — or even weeks — to get final results in all the races. Maryland is the only state that doesn’t allow mail-in ballots to be counted until two days after an election, and the volume of these ballots — expected to be close to half a million — could mean lengthy waits in close contests.

In this modern era of technological expediency and instant gratification, Americans generally expect to know election results within a matter of hours. But it wasn’t always that way.

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The United States has a long history of long elections, starting with the first presidential campaign. Though it seemed a foregone conclusion that George Washington would become the nation’s first leader in 1789, it took nearly two months to name him the winner.

Voting was completed Dec. 15, 1788, but the former commander in chief of the Continental Army was not confirmed by electors until Feb. 4, 1789. “It was out of necessity in those days,” said James Roger Sharp, a scholar of early presidential elections and professor emeritus of history at Syracuse University. “The difficulties of travel hampered early elections. It took a lot longer to collect ballots on horseback across muddy trails.”

Closeness often begets delays. In Maryland, the 1904 presidential election was so tight that the state’s winner was not determined for nearly a month. In the end, Theodore Roosevelt wound up taking the state by a mere 51 votes — although by then he already had the electoral votes needed to claim the presidency.

However, the most divisive delay in a presidential election occurred during the 1800 race, when Thomas Jefferson challenged incumbent John Adams. It was the longest election in U.S. history: The winner would not be known for 10 months after the first ballots were cast.

Adams chose a new chief justice just before leaving office. Jefferson was furious.

In those days, states could choose their own election day, so voting across the country took place from April through October 1800. “Elections needed to be spread out over a longer period because of weather,” said Sharp, who wrote the 2010 book “The Deadlocked Election of 1800: Jefferson, Burr, and the Union in the Balance.” “Massachusetts, for example, didn’t want to hold Election Day late in the year, when it could be snowing.”

In 1800, the issue wasn’t which presidential candidate had come out ahead: Jefferson defeated Adams, 73 electoral votes to 65. But political wrangling over who would be the next president pushed the nation to its first constitutional crisis as partisan politics reared its ugly head.

The 1800 election was a showdown between the country’s first two political parties: the Federalists, led by Adams; and the Democratic Republicans, captained by Jefferson. The 1787 Constitutional Convention had not anticipated the rise of parties, which Washington warned in his farewell address in 1796 could allow “unprincipled men” to “subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”

This was also the first election when vice presidents were included on the ballot. Previously, the runner-up became vice president — as was Adams to Washington and Jefferson to Adams. That changed in the 1800 race, when Jefferson ran for president with Aaron Burr of New York as his vice-presidential nominee against Adams, who ran with Charles C. Pinckney of South Carolina.

Each elector cast two votes, for his preferred presidential and vice-presidential candidates. But that left Jefferson and Burr tied at 73 votes — something the Constitution hadn’t set rules to resolve.

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“The parties didn’t trust each other then,” Sharp said. “Plus, the Democratic Republicans, who could have broken the tie, didn’t want to take votes away from Burr for fear of him leaving the party.”

With a stalemate, the House of Representatives had the responsibility of deciding the winner. However, the Federalists, who still controlled Congress, did not want Jefferson to become president.

On Feb. 11, 1801, members of the House met to try to break the deadlock. For more than a week, they voted on who should be the winner. Each time, with Federalists backing Burr to block Jefferson, the results were the same. Jefferson and Burr were tied after 35 ballots.

Finally, on Feb. 17, the House picked a president on the 36th ballot. Jefferson was named the winner after a group of Federalists led by Rep. James Bayard (Del.) agreed to end the stalemate by withholding their votes, giving Jefferson a plurality of states for the win.

One of the people playing a major role in this decision was Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s treasury secretary and a senior Federalist. Though he despised Jefferson, he believed the Virginia statesman was a better choice than his former friend and now archenemy, Burr.

In a letter to Rep. Harrison Gray Otis (Mass.), Hamilton wrote, “In a choice of Evils let them take the least — Jefferson is in every view less dangerous than Burr.”

Jefferson was inaugurated March 4, 1801, with Burr becoming the vice president — as the electors had intended. Of course, Hamilton’s support for the eventual president would come back to haunt him. Burr mortally wounded Hamilton in a duel on the banks of the Hudson River in New Jersey on July 11, 1804. Burr, still vice president at the time, was vilified for killing Hamilton and would never hold a high office again.

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To avoid future election problems, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1804, stipulating that electors “name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President.”

And to establish uniformity in the election process, Congress passed legislation in 1845 requiring states to select electors on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November — thus establishing the quadrennial presidential Election Day that is in use today.

Over the years, Congress continued to change election laws to ensure speedy and accurate results. However, those efforts were not always successful; the winner of the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was not known for five weeks after Americans cast their votes.

That took a Supreme Court ruling to declare that Bush was the winner, finally ending recounts in Florida.

Sharp thinks it’s not impossible that we could see a repeat of the 1800 fiasco. “Much like 220 years ago, trust is gone between the two parties,” Sharp said. “The situation today is very similar in many ways to what happened then.”