Right now, Americans across the nation (and really, around the globe) are casting ballots in this year’s election. The marquee race is for the office of President, as anyone who has paid even a moment’s notice to the news is sure to already be aware of. But how U.S. Presidential elections work is odd — a candidate can get the most votes and lose, and it’s only slightly controversial. Just ask Abraham Lincoln.
Without going too far into the weeds, it makes more sense to look at the Presidential election as 51 separate elections — one in Washington, D.C., and one in each U.S. state. Instead of voting directly for the candidate, voters in each of those 51 places vote for a set of electors (the number of which varies by state) who, in turn, actually elect the President. With some exceptions, whichever candidate gets the most votes in a state gets all the electors for the state. In order to become President, a candidate needs to get a majority of the electors from across the 51 states.
That was true in 1860 as well, except that there were fewer states. And the election was, by and large, a referendum on the issue of slavery. To win the election, Abraham Lincoln of the upstart Republican party needed to earn 152 of the 303 electoral votes; with the nation fractured over the issue of slavery, that seemed likely. The anti-Slavery northern states could easily provide that amount. On the other hand, Lincoln could expect no support from the Southern states; they saw him as a threat to abolish slavery (despite Lincoln’s public statements to the contrary). The big question, therefore, was whether the Democrats could find a candidate that would appease the South while not conceding the votes in the north.
At first, that looked possible. The Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas, who actually held a somewhat similar view on slavery to Lincoln’s; Douglas believed in “popular sovereignty,” the idea that each new state and territory should be able to choose whether slavery should be legal inside its borders. But Democrats in the South did not approve of Douglas’ nomination, so they nominated an pro-slavery candidate, John Breckinridge, as an alternative. And then, to muddy the waters even further, a party known as the “Constitutional Union” (which has its own interesting backstory, but not relevant to us right now) decided to put up its own candidate, John Bell. Bell’s position on slavery, and that of his party, was agnostic; the Constitutional Unionists wanted to maintain the status quo and stave off a civil war.
On a national level, this four-way race ended up squeezing Douglas out of the picture. The voters themselves cast about 1.86 million votes for Lincoln, 1.38 million for Douglas, about 850,000 for Breckinridge, and just over 590,000 for Bell. The electors, though, told a different story. Northern states, with little exception, voted for Lincoln — he ended up with 180 Electoral Votes, easily enough to win the Presidency. Lincoln wasn’t even on the ballot in most Southern states, though; Breckinridge swept those, taking 72 votes. The border states, by and large, went to Bell, who earned 39 votes. Douglas only won one state outright, carrying Missouri. And then there was New Jersey.
Officially, Abraham Lincoln took home 58,346 votes, or about 48.1% of the votes. Stephen A. Douglas topped that, with at least 62,801 votes, and with more than 50%. Under the rules we’re familiar with, Douglas should have earned all seven of New Jersey’s electoral votes as a result, but that’s not what happened. Lincoln “won” the state, and received four votes — a majority — while Douglas took home only three.
Despite the differences between them, the three non-Lincoln candidates realized that in many states, they couldn’t beat the Republican if they were also fighting against each other. In a few of those states — New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and yes, New Jersey — the trio combined to form a “fusion” ticket. Voters could vote for Lincoln’s slate of electors, or they could vote for a slate of electors split up among the Bell, Breckinridge, and Douglas. In NY, RI, and PA, it didn’t matter — Lincoln won an outright majority anyway. In New Jersey, though, things got weird.
As New Jersey had seven electoral votes at the time, there was a math problem — seven does not divide equally by three. After some negotiation (see, e.g., this speech), the trio decided that Douglas would get the extra elector, and Bell and Breckinridge would therefore get two apiece. And if ballots worked back then like they do today, where the voter simply chooses “Lincoln” or “Fusion” and then the assignment of electors happens automatically, the story would have simply resulted in the Fusion ticket getting all seven votes. But that year, New Jersey voters voted for the electors themselves. And because few voters knew the names of those electors, the political parties made it easy for them. The Republicans gave out pre-filled ballots listing the Lincoln electors; the Fusion parties gave out pre-filled ballots listing theirs. (And yes, that was entirely legal at the time.) Voters would simply turn in the ballot that better matched their preferences.
But, as New Jersey’s state website recounts, “[some of] Douglas’s supporters reneged on a pledge to join such an alliance.” Maybe they crossed out the names of Bell and Breckinridge electors; maybe they issued substitute ballots. Either way, of the 62,869 ballots cast for the Fusion ticket, about 4,000 omitted the names of the Bell and Breckinridge electors, instead substituting in names for people loyal to Douglas. The original version of the full accounting of the ballots is above (and a larger, legible-ish version can be found here). Douglas’s three electors ended up with more than 62,000 votes, Lincoln’s seven were all in the 58,300 range, and the other four Fusion electors ended up with no more than 58,210. Douglas won three votes, exactly as many as he would have won had his supporters stayed true to the pledge. On the other hand, despite the Fusion ballots being more popular, Lincoln’s electors came in fourth through seventh.
The minor swing in electoral votes didn’t have an impact in the overall race, and not much came of this quirk as a result. But despite having lost New Jersey’s popular vote, Lincoln is typically credited with winning the state that year.
From the Archives: The Electoral Insurance Policy: Lincoln’s maneuver to find two more electoral votes in 1864.