9 May 2019
9 May 2019

Think of it as an insurance policy for free and fair elections in the United States.

Our system of checks and balances is one of the hallmarks of American democracy. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but we have never had an election dispute quite like the one now playing out in Turkey.

We know here from reports that Turkish election officials invalidated the results of the March 31 mayoral election in Istanbul after the candidate backed by the president, Recep Tayip Erdogan, and his ruling party lost… and the candidate of the main opposition party won.

Across the ocean in the U.S., it all looks kind of suspect. Erdogan claimed “irregularities in the voting” and the opposition called the ruling “a plain dictatorship.” In the end, the vote was thrown out not because of suspect ballots but apparently because some polling officials were not civil servants.

The stakes here are huge. Istanbul is Turkey’s largest city, and Erdogan’s party has controlled it for 25 years. It seems he was not going to let that control go without a fight.

Now, we have had disputed elections here, but never one that anyone can cite where the president has stepped in to demand a redo. And when there is an election dispute — even on the state and municipal level — there are intricate procedures that fall into place.

Which isn’t to say the whole thing can’t be messy. For that, you need to look no further than the controversial presidential election of 2000 that pitted Republican George W. Bush against Democrat Al Gore.

The election was close. Very close. At one point, Gore thought he had won. But when the last votes came in from the state of Florida, it appeared the race had shifted and Bush went into the lead by a few hundred votes statewide.

It’s a long, complicated story but let’s just say a recount immediately began, lawyers for both sides poured into Florida and the question of just how many votes needed to be recounted across this massive state and how the recount should be done (by machine or by hand) started to make its way through the courts.

In the end, the Supreme Court stepped in and decided the race saying all that could be done had been done — that the legal system could not mandate a new way to tally the results (that could only be done by enacting new laws) and that victory should go to Bush.

The independent judiciary ruled on the legal merits of the case. The results were certified. Gore conceded.  The drama wound down.

No one in authority or in the leadership of either political party said there should be a redo.

That’s just the way it works here.

The president has no power over elections — everything is handled at the state and local level. And even if he does not like the outcome, there is nothing he can do to change it.

A good example would be the 2017 special election in Alabama to pick a replacement for Jeff Sessions, who had resigned from the US Senate to head the Department of Justice.

Now there is not a more Republican state than Alabama, which voted overwhelming for Trump in 2016.   But the election victor — in a stunning upset — was Democrat Doug Jones.

Was Trump happy about the results? Of course not. Did he formally contest the outcome? No.

It should be noted that the Republican candidate, Roy Moore, indicated he might contest the results of the election. It was close, but not close enough to trigger an automatic recount under Alabama state law, and even though Jones took his seat in the Senate, Moore never conceded the race.

We’ve had other close races since then — and we had one last year that made national headlines for its accusations of voter fraud.

It involved a congressional election in North Carolina, and a bizarre ballot tampering scheme involving paid campaign workers for Republican candidate Mark Harris. On election night it appeared Harris was leading Democrat Dan McCready by less than 1,000 votes. But when the allegations of election misconduct surfaced, the state board of elections decided to hold off on certifying the race.

State investigators took up the case… hearings were held… a state judge weighed in and in the end, even Harris agreed a new election should be held.

It was a strange story by American election standards and resulted in a months long delay in filling the vacant congressional seat. But the case was handled in public… and in accordance with North Carolina election law.

There have been other cases of voter tampering here but, overall, they have been extremely rare. This race is one of the very few in American history to be tossed out and a new election called because of an accusation of fraud.

Fraud is handled by state authorities and courts… 20 states now mandate automatic recounts when election results fall within certain parameters… and the office of the President has no say in the actual conduct of elections and the resolution of election disputes.

There is no denying that in some ways, our election system is still a work in progress. A big concern now involves “gerrymandering” —  a process where  politicians redraw legislative district lines in their state in order to give their party an electoral advantage.

More and more, these legislative maps are being challenged in the courts. It’s another sign of those checks and balances that are so essential to a democratic system.

And sometimes, the path to settling an election dispute in this country is simple — as simple as  drawing lots.

One need look no further than a wild election last November for a seat in the Virginia state legislature — a seat which would decide which political party would lead the equally divided general assembly.

Races don’t come any closer than this one. Initial results gave Democrat Shelly Simonds a one vote margin of victory over Republican David Yancey. But when the ballots were re-examined, one vote switched and it became a tie.

Instead of a new election, they decided to let the fates decide the outcome

Each candidate’s name was placed in a film canister. Those were then placed into a bowl and one name was drawn.

Yancey won.



Paula Wolfson

Paula Wolfson is a veteran Washington correspondent who has covered three presidents and six presidential campaigns. She was the White House bureau chief for the Voice of America before switching to commercial radio, where she reported on science and health care policy, Recently she returned to her first love and is writing once again on American politics and foreign policy for

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