A number of observers have raised the issue of court challenges to the 2016 US presidential election results.

Various rationales might be employed. For instance,

  1. Harvard Law prof. Larry Lessig has discussed the possible unconstitutionality of winner-take-all allocation of electors under the Equal Protection Clause here.

  2. Former CIA officer Robert Baer has stated here that if ample evidence is presented that Russia intervened in the election through information warfare, a rerun of the election might be justified.

  3. There is ample polling evidence that the Clinton campaign was damaged by FBI Director James Comey reopening the Clinton email investigation shortly before the election. The election may have hinged on this intervention. Comey's actions may have constituted a violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits him from interfering in elections.

Have any American elections (at any level) ever been overturned by the courts before? In the case of rationales (2) and (3), what possible legal doctrines could be employed?

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    This feels like at least 3 excellent questions. 1. Have any elections been overturned before? 2. What legal rationale could be used to justify Baer's claim? and 3. What legal rationale could be used to justify Director Comey's claim? Dec 11, 2016 at 5:22
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    The FBI investigates crimes, a complete stretch if not an out right slander to compare that to political grandstanding. If anything she got off easy
    – user9790
    Dec 11, 2016 at 12:29
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    – abelenky
    Dec 11, 2016 at 13:35
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    @acpilot 1. FBI regulations prohibit commenting on politically sensitive matters within 60 days of an election cnn.com/2016/10/31/politics/eric-holder-op-ed-rips-comey-letter 2. The Hatch Act prohibits "use [ing] official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election." .
    – Colin
    Dec 12, 2016 at 5:12
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    @KDog - making a big announcement of a non-issue about another person that had no relevance, and linking it to a closed investigation just before the election date is unprecedented behavior and absolutely justifies a comparison to political grandstanding, as evidenced by the fact that what was found was exactly as I described it. Indeed, even his report to the Senate where he talked about all the things he didn't like, while also saying none of them came close to criminal behavior, was unprecedented, as well. Dec 12, 2016 at 14:34

4 Answers 4


Courts have over-turned elections

While researching another question, I found the case of McNally v Tollendar in which the Michigan state court over-turned a recall election for county office. There were procedural irregularities which caused about 40% of eligible voters to be unable to vote.

This case was notable because it established a new (and relevant) exception. Typically, a court can only overturn an election when it's clear that some irregularities caused the election to be decided unfairly. With this case, the court of Michigan decided that in cases of extreme irregularity the courts can overturn an election without regard to the actual effect of the irregularity.

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    This only addresses one of the questions in the question. I kept my response narrow in anticipation of the question being edited down. Dec 11, 2016 at 5:23

Yes, on multiple occasions.

This generally happens when ruling on the validity of votes during recounts. A good recent example of this is the 2016 Alaska Democratic Primary between Benjamin Nageak and Dean Westlake. Westlake originally won by 21 votes, then the recount brought it down to only 4 votes. After a challenge in the Alaskan Supreme court Nageak ended up the victor by 2 votes.

For your second question, I don't know of any case where the courts ruled themselves unable to overturn election results due to separation of powers, but I don't think its very realistic to have such a case. Elections are governed by laws, and it is the responsibility of the judicial branch to resolve disputes over laws. Those laws could also be considered the doctrines to answer your third question.

  • Apparently it was actually an appellate court which reversed the primary result, and the Alaska supreme court reinstated the original result.
    – Colin
    Dec 11, 2016 at 23:08
  • @ColinZwanziger Ah right, misread that one a bit. The point remains though - the courts can and on occasion do overturn election results Dec 11, 2016 at 23:11

Here's another one:


1994, Pennsylvannia State Senate:

a Federal judge today took the rare step of invalidating the vote and ordered the seat filled by the Republican candidate.


Bush v. Gore might be relevant here! What short memories we have.

the actual statewide Florida recount with disputed ballots containing overvotes (where a voter hole-punches multiple candidates but writes out the name of their intended candidate) would have resulted in Gore emerging as the victor by between 60 and 171 votes,

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    But this involved upholding the election result, not overturning it. Note that none of the scheduled recounts used that exact method of counting the votes that would have resulted in a Gore win. And yes, that includes the recount that was stopped by Bush v. Gore. From your source: "Likewise, if Florida's 67 counties had carried out the hand recount of disputed ballots ordered by the Florida Supreme Court on December 8, applying the standards that election officials said they would have used, Bush would have emerged the victor by 493 votes."
    – Brythan
    Dec 11, 2016 at 20:30

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