If Donald Trump loses the upcoming election, he is threatening to disregard the outcome. It will then fall to Mike Pence, as president of the Senate, to certify the Electoral College results. This process has been in place since 1804.
Similar fears concerning a challenge to the election results surrounded the presidential race of 1860. At that time, the vice president, and therefore the president of the Senate, was Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge. It is instructive to consider how he performed his duties on Feb. 13, 1861, a time when seven states had already left the Union, and just two months before Confederate cannons fired on Fort Sumter.
During the Civil War, Breckinridge ably served as a major general in the Confederate army, and briefly as the Confederacy’s secretary of war. He ran for president in 1860, as the standard-bearer for Southern Democrats. Although he was not a disunionist at that time, he did believe that the ultimate aim of the Republican Party was the abolition of slavery, not just in the territories, but in the slave states as well. He also believed that each state had the right to secede for adequate cause. In that election, Abraham Lincoln won a majority of the electoral votes, even though he garnered about 40% of the popular vote.
As Ted Widmer recounts in his powerful new book, “Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington,” the election process “(gave) the South a chance to turn back the election ... Through parliamentary maneuver, or sleight of hand, it might be possible to declare a miscount and throw Lincoln’s election back into the cloakroom.”
Lincoln himself considered this a very real possibility. But Breckinridge upheld the sanctity of the election process and duly certified the results. If Joe Biden wins the presidential election of 2020 and Pence likewise certifies the results, it is unlikely that President Trump will be able to prevent a smooth transition of power.
There is much handwringing today over the state of our politics. Accusations are flying in both directions that our politicians put party above country, that there is nothing they won’t say or do to maintain power, and there is no act by the president that his party won’t support.
There is a very real chance that the election results will be challenged. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, creating a dramatic increase in mail-in voting that will almost certainly delay the final tally and lead to loud accusations of election meddling and fraud in multiple swing states.
The fate of the republic may be in Mike Pence’s hands. Let us hope that if the time comes, he will follow the lead of John Breckinridge, and of his predecessor Joe Biden who, when faced with objections by his party to the Electoral College results, simply gaveled away the objections and announced, “it is over.”