10 of the most bizarre elections in American history

Updated 8:15 PM EST, Thu February 13, 2020

A version of this article first published in 2016. Explore the behind-the-scenes drama that gave rise to some of the most influential American leaders on CNN Original Series “Race for the White House,” Sundays at 10p ET.

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The 2020 election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden is perhaps the craziest, most controversial election in US history.

We say perhaps because we don’t want to bog you down with superlatives when there have been so many truly zany moments in American elections.

Who could forget Howard Dean screaming like he’d lost a limb, or Rick Perry forgetting one of the three federal agencies he’d cut if elected?

Then there’s the bevy of oh-so-colorful characters, from Jello Biafra, Joan Jett Blakk and Wavy Gravy to Lee Mercer, Jack Shepard and Lyndon LaRouche. Did we mention Deez Nuts?

To say an election was the craziest or most controversial simply isn’t objective. Sure, Trump has claimed victory despite Biden’s projected win, questioned the voting system’s integrity and suggested he might not step down, but is that more controversial than Congress picking a president? That’s happened a few times.

We’ll let you decide. So, without any superlatives, here are 11 fascinating elections in American history:

1800: Prelude to a duel

Vice President Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804.
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Vice President Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804.

The outcome of the 1800 contest between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams was so bizarre, the United States had to amend the Constitution.

Pre-12th Amendment, Electoral College members each had two votes for president, and there were no official tickets. Whoever garnered the most votes was president, and second place took the vice presidency.

Though problems with the system were apparent in 1796, the election of 1800 saw Jefferson tie with his Democratic-Republican “running mate” Aaron Burr. Both had 73 votes to Adams’$2 65.

Congress would be called upon to break the tie. Enter Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first treasury secretary, founder of the Federalist Party and a man who did not care for Adams, Jefferson or Burr.

Nonetheless, Hamilton engaged in a campaign to convince the Federalists to vote for Jefferson, his lesser of three evils, writing in a letter that “Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself – thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement.”

The House of Representatives didn’t easily arrive at its decision, casting 35 ballots in a week before finally voting to name Jefferson the victor and Burr the veep on February 7, 1801.

Making the election all the zanier, the rivalry between Burr and Hamilton would continue for more than three years before Burr, still the sitting vice president, killed Hamilton in a duel.

1824: ‘Corrupt bargain’

Andrew Jackson called the 1824 election the "corrupt bargain" and promised to win in 1828.
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Andrew Jackson called the 1824 election the "corrupt bargain" and promised to win in 1828.

This one was odd from the get-go, if only for the fact that the Federalist Party was on the cusp of extinction and all four candidates were Democratic-Republicans.

Andrew Jackson, a war hero and statesman, won the popular vote by fewer than 39,000 ballots and took 99 Electoral College votes. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams secured 84, Treasury Secretary William Crawford won 41 and House Speaker Henry Clay had 37.

With no candidate earning a majority of the votes, the House again had to settle the deadlock, and Jackson was confident he would win the presidency given that he had won the popular vote and Electoral College. Because the House could choose among only three candidates, Clay got the boot.

We mentioned Clay was speaker, yes?

Well, after a month of horse trading, many of Clay’s supporters shifted their support to Adams, who would go on to win the majority of the House vote. Maryland, Illinois and Louisiana, which had cast most of their Electoral College votes for Jackson, as well as Kentucky, where Adams did not receive a single ballot in the popular vote, decided to back Adams.

After his inauguration, Adams selected Clay as his secretary of state. Jackson was furious and accused Adams and Clay of a “corrupt bargain.” He vacated his Senate seat and vowed to win the 1828 election as a Washington outsider.

Backed by his new party, the Democrats, Jackson made good on the promise, besting Adams, who by then was a leader in the National Republican Party.

1860: Nation divided

A crowd gathers for the  inauguration of Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1861.
N. Spindler/Library of Congress
A crowd gathers for the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1861.

This election wasn’t particularly close. Abraham Lincoln trounced John Breckinridge in an election that had one of the highest voter turnouts of all time.

No, the 1860 election was notable because it ripped the long-dominant Democratic Party – and thereby, the nation – in half.

The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857, essentially legalizing slavery in all U.S. territories, had laid the battleground: The Republican Party largely opposed slavery but was reluctant to push for its prohibition in states that already had it, and the Democrats were unable at their 1860 convention to establish an official party line on slavery.

At a second convention that year, the Democrats nominated Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois, but many Southerners in the party defected and selected Breckinridge, who was vice president, as their man. Both would claim to be the official Democratic candidate.

The Constitutional Union Party, which had formed the year before and staged a campaign that basically ignored the issue of slavery, selected Sen. John Bell of Tennessee.

The Electoral College vote told the story. Lincoln snared only 40% of the popular vote, but in the Electoral College took most of the North, along with California and Oregon. Douglas came in second in the popular vote but took only Missouri (and three votes in New Jersey). Breckinridge took most of the South, along with Maryland and Delaware, and Bell’s middle-of-the-road policies earned him the middle of the road: Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia.

Weeks after the election, South Carolina voted to secede, followed by six more Southern states. In February 1861, delegates from those states formed the Confederate States of America and selected Jefferson Davis as their president.

In April, a South Carolina militia would take Fort Sumter, and four more states would join the Confederacy.

1872: Death of a candidate

Ulysses S. Grant attended Horace Greeley's funeral after his rival died before the Electoral College vote.
MPI/Getty Images
Ulysses S. Grant attended Horace Greeley's funeral after his rival died before the Electoral College vote.

Set aside that 1872 was the year suffragette Victoria Woodhull of the People’s Party became the first woman to run for president. Also, forget that writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, her running mate, was the first African-American to be considered for the vice presidency. And never mind this was the year Susan B. Anthony would be arrested for illegal voting.

No, 1872 was strange because one of the primary candidates never saw the final Electoral College vote.

Horace Greeley wasn’t supposed to put up much of a fight in his bid to unseat President Ulysses S. Grant, but a schism in Grant’s Republican Party made things a little more interesting.

Grant, who led the Union armies that defeated the Confederacy, had not been so convincing in the Oval Office. The White House website describes him as out of his element and quotes one visitor who spoke of his “puzzled pathos, as of a man with a problem before him of which he does not understand the terms.”

Some Republicans defected, becoming Liberal Republicans, and cast their lot with Greeley, a Democrat who would go on to snare 44% of the popular vote, almost 3 million ballots, despite ending his campaigning to tend to his sick wife, who died a week before the election.

Before the Electoral College could cast its votes, the newspaper founder died November 29, 1872, and 63 of his 66 votes were dispersed among Thomas Hendricks, who would later become vice president, and other Democrats.

Grant attended his rival’s funeral.

1876: Not-so-independent tiebreaker

Rutherford B. Hayes' election as president also marked the end of Reconstruction in the South.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Rutherford B. Hayes' election as president also marked the end of Reconstruction in the South.

Democrat Samuel Tilden had beaten Republican Rutherford Hayes. He snared a quarter-million more ballots in the popular vote, and he had 19 more votes in the Electoral College.

Problem was, Tilden was one Electoral College vote away from a majority of 185 votes, and four states composing a total of 20 votes – Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Oregon – were disputing the results. In the Southern states, each party was accusing the other of fraud.

With no precedent to lean on, the two parties agreed to establish a 15-member commission made up of seven Republicans, seven Democrats and an independent.

The independent, Supreme Court Justice David Davis, however, was unexpectedly selected by the Illinois Legislature to serve in the U.S. Senate. He was replaced by Justice Joseph Bradley, a diehard Republican who would cast every vote for Hayes, providing him the 20 votes he needed for a majority.

Democrats initially threatened to block the decision, but in a backroom deal they agreed to drop their opposition if Hayes, among other provisions, removed federal troops that had been in the South under Reconstruction.

Hayes was sworn in March 5, 1877, and within weeks, he removed the troops. Reconstruction formally came to an end, halting the progress African Americans had made. It would be decades before civil rights would see serious discussion again in Congress.

1920: Prison campaign

Eugene Debs ran for president five times, the final time from the most unlikely of headquarters.
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Eugene Debs ran for president five times, the final time from the most unlikely of headquarters.

It was a battle between two newspaper publishers, but the election wasn’t terribly exciting. Republican Warren G. Harding handed Democrat James Cox a historic beatdown, taking more than 60% of the popular vote along with 37 of the 48 states.

Third place is where it got interesting.

Long before Bernie Sanders faced jabs for his liberal politics, the Socialist Party of America enjoyed a modicum of support at the outset of the 20th century. That union leader Eugene Debs ran for president in 1900, 1904, 1908 and 1912 is somewhat unremarkable, as is the fact he secured roughly 6% of the popular vote in 1912, more than 900,000 ballots.

In 1920, though, Debs had to run his fifth campaign from the most unlikely of headquarters: prison.

No stranger to incarceration – he’d served time in connection with an 1894 railroad strike – Debs again drew the government’s ire in 1918 when he gave an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, in which he pilloried “the ruling class” who made all the decisions to send the working class to war.

“Yours not to reason why. Yours but to do and die,” he said.

He was convicted under an espionage law and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Demonstrations protesting his imprisonment evolved into the May Day riots of 1919, and Debs was later moved to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, from where he conducted his presidential campaign.

He would again secure more than 900,000 votes – an impressive tally, but not nearly enough to compete with Harding, who snared more than 16 million.

The following year, on Christmas, Harding commuted Debs’ sentence to time served.

1948: Ultimate ‘whoops’ moment