Douglas Defeats Lincoln in Ranked-Choice Voting Count

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The citizens of the 33 states breathed a collective sigh of relief when the results of the 1860 presidential election were finally certified. In the third round of the new ranked-choice voting system, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois was declared election winner by tallying nearly 2.5 million total votes, more than half of which came from voters’ second and third choices.

Because of the adoption of the 13th Amendment in 1859, two major changes were introduced to the presidential election process. First, the amendment eliminated the electoral college, which had been widely criticized as undemocratic by giving undue weight to the most rural, least populated states. Second, the amendment introduced ranked-choice voting, permitting each citizen to show their preferences from first to last place on the ballot.

The results were announced on February 27, the latest a presidential race has ever been determined, because of the complexity of counting ranked votes. Additionally, multiple challenges in various states and counties slowed the count, while many voters complained about the difficulty of figuring out how to mark their ballots, often accusing the opposing party of “rigging the new system.” In the final ranked choice count, Democrat Senator Stephen Douglas defeated former Republican Congressman Abraham Lincoln, another Prairie State politician. Although Lincoln jumped out to an early lead among first choice voters, Douglas won significant majorities of second and third choice votes, overwhelming the Republican candidate in the later ranked-choice rounds.

Lincoln’s supporters were among the most vocal critics of the unprecedented outcome. They noted that “Honest Abe” would have easily won the presidency had the traditional system of the electoral college and a single preference vote remained in place. They charged ranked choice with creating a “manufactured majority” as opposed to a popular plurality based on Lincoln’s position “first across the finish line.”

On that question, Lincoln’s advocates are demonstrably correct. On election day, November 6, 1860, Republican standard bearer Lincoln collected nearly 40% of the popular vote to Democrat candidate Douglas’ 29.5% total. In raw numbers, Lincoln outpaced Douglas by tallying nearly one-half million more first place votes. But Lincoln suffered in second and third round votes, where the more compromising and moderate Douglas had his strongest appeal.

Had the Electoral College still been in place, the Illinois Republican would have won an impressive victory. Reliable sources indicate that Lincoln would have earned an outright Electoral College majority of 180 votes, winning such elector-rich states as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. But Lincoln’s victory was not to be, as that state-by-state electoral count has given way to the total national vote and then, if needed to secure a popular majority, ranked choice.

Because of the multiplicity of political parties following the total collapse of the Whig Party, it has become increasingly difficult to secure an outright popular majority. This brings to the fore the founding generation’s fear of factionalism. In the recent 1860 presidential election there were four major candidates representing a quartet of parties or factions. In addition to Republican Lincoln and Democrat Douglas, the other major candidates were pro-slavery Southern Democrat John Breckenridge, the incumbent vice president of the United States, and John Bell of the Constitution Union Party, who prioritized preserving the Union and its constitution, while avoiding the paramount issue of slavery.

The factional and sectional divide across the country prevented any single candidate from securing a popular majority; Lincoln, himself, was so feared and reviled in slave states that his name failed to appear on the ballot in a total of 10 states. Once the first round of vote counting proved that Lincoln had not locked up an outright national majority, his Republican supporters knew his ultimate victory was in grave doubt. He was considered too divisive and polarizing a figure to garner many second or third place votes among wide swaths of the body politic, where a Lincoln victory was seen as a precursor to civil strife and disunion.

That’s where Douglas rolled up huge majorities of second and third place votes. An important national figure for more than a decade, the Illinois Democrat was dubbed the “Little Giant” because his small stature contrasted dramatically with his enormous political clout. Douglas had served in numerous government offices:  Associate Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, Secretary of State in Illinois, the United States House of Representatives, and the United States Senate. In 1858, he had been re-elected to his U.S. Senate seat over the less experienced Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln, his presidential rival. Even Douglas’s sharpest critics never questioned the man’s credentials or competence.

Additionally, Douglas had been a constant advocate of peaceful compromise on the rankling and seemingly unresolvable issue of slavery. He supported the idea of “popular sovereignty” to determine whether territories would become free or slave states upon admission to the Union. While this formula pleased neither the pro-slavery nor anti-slavery extremes, it set Douglas up as the reasonable-sounding second choice for voters wrestling with ranked choice for the first time.

Reformers had been demanding major changes to presidential elections since 1824, when John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts defeated controversial westerner Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. In that election, General Jackson won a clear plurality of the popular vote, but the Electoral College split among four candidates. The lack of an Electoral College majority sent the decision to the House of Representatives, which on February 9, 1825, handed the presidency to the establishment figure Adams over the plain-spoken populist Jackson.

That led to charges of a “corrupt bargain” in the election outcome and a push to “make every vote to count.” Reformers of all stripes united behind the elimination of the Electoral College, labeling it “undemocratic” and an impediment to popular majorities. The idea of ranked-choice voting was added to the proposed constitutional amendment in response to the failure of recent presidential winners to gain a popular majority.

In the four elections between 1844 and 1856, only once, in 1852, did a presidential candidate cross the 50% mark. Hence, reformers demanded a system that would consistently achieve majorities through ranked choice, while critics complained they were producing an artificial result by sabotaging the long-established precedent of “one man, one vote.” 

Now the nation has achieved its majority, but that majority is grounded in second and third place votes through the novel and untested ranked-choice scheme. Gone is the Electoral College which would have given a clear-cut win to Lincoln and the Republicans. History alone will decide whether the new plan for electing a president can unite a sharply divided nation. History will ultimately have the decisive vote on whether Stephen Douglas becomes a “little giant” among presidents, and whether Abe Lincoln and the Republican Party follow the Whigs and the Know Nothings into political obscurity.


John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky, left, and John Bell of Tennessee, right, finished third and fourth, respectively, in the popular vote in the presidential election of 1860. But their voters’ second-choice and third-choice selections secured the victory for Stephen A. Douglas over plurality-first-choice winner Abraham Lincoln, making Douglas set to become the nation’s 16th president.


Joseph Tortelli is a freelance writer. Read other columns by Mr. Tortelli here.