The Divisive Election of 1800
Although some recent elections have been close and controversial, you can go all the way back to the 1800 American presidential election to see the story of a divided electorate and an incredibly close vote.
The two parties at the time were the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. The rival parties had many ideological differences.
The Federalists wanted a stronger centralized federal authority over the nation and over popular opinion, while the Democratic-Republicans believed in popular rule and greater states rights.
The opponents for president were the Federalist incumbent John Adams and the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. The campaign often turned nasty.
Jefferson was often accused of being un-Christian, and a sympathizer of the bloody French Revolution that could threaten the new republic. Adams was criticized for increasing taxes during his presidency, expanding the army and navy, and curbing individual rights.
In a quirk of the constitution at that time, the presidential and vice-presidential candidates were all voted upon separately by the electoral college delegates. In this election, Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican vice-presidential candidate, Aaron Burr, wound up tied in votes. It was a stalemate. Who the next president of the United States would be decided by the Federalist controlled congress.
Apparently, most Federalists preferred Aaron Burr, but one of the most influential Federalists in Congress, Alexander Hamilton, hated Burr more than Jefferson. Hamilton was able to persuade enough congressmen to change their votes and Jefferson became president.
It was a significant election in that it was the first peaceful transfer of power between rival political parties in American history. It also resulted in the 12th Amendment to the Constitution. Previously, each electoral college delegate could choose two candidates for president. The new amendment stated that electors must cast distinct votes, one for president and the other for vice-president.