The Blackmail Theory of Disputed Elections

The Blackmail Theory of Disputed Elections

When Losing Presidential Candidates Hold Their Countries Hostage

The peaceful transfer of power through elections is a defining feature of democracy. After votes are freely cast and fairly counted, the losing candidate or party accepts the results as legitimate and concedes to the winner. The United States has a long tradition of public presidential concessions dating back to William Jennings Bryan’s congratulatory telegram to William McKinley after the 1896 election. Al Gore disputed the outcome of the 2000 election, but after the Supreme Court ruled to halt a recount in Florida, he conceded defeat.

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to upend this tradition. A reporter asked him in September whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power after this month’s election. Replied the president: “We’re going to have to see what happens.”      

A disputed presidential election would take the United States into uncharted territory. Around the world, however, losing presidential candidates refuse to accept electoral results on a fairly regular basis. Out of 178 elections in presidential democracies between 1974 and 2012, 38—or 21 percent—were disputed by runner-up candidates or parties. Disputed elections have set off violent unrest, constitutional crises, and even civil wars. Given the enormous potential risks, why are losing presidential candidates so often willing to brush aside democratic tradition and reject unfavorable electoral outcomes?