What Happens If There’s a Tie in a US Presidential Election? - HISTORY

Map illustrates votes by state, in the U.S. presidential election of 1800, broken down as votes for Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, or 'Blank Ballot.'

“[Candidates for president] ran as a ticket,” says Alexander. “That created problems when Electors pledged to the Democratic-Republicans cast one vote for each of the two people on the ticket. The result was a 73-73 tie between Thomas Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, both Democratic-Republicans.”

Meanwhile, the Federalist candidate, incumbent John Adams, only received 65 votes. According to the Constitution, an electoral tie goes to the House of Representatives, where each state casts one ballot to pick a winner from among the two tied candidates. So Adams was out of the running and Burr, Jefferson’s running mate, could have stepped aside, but didn’t.

The Federalists, who still held a majority in the lame duck Congress, were now in the awkward position of picking a president from two enemy candidates. Federalist leaders like Alexander Hamilton hated Jefferson’s politics, but they distrusted the opportunistic Burr even more.

Pennsylvania and Virginia began to mobilize their militias, wondering if the stalemate would spark a civil war. It took 36 consecutive tie votes in the House before Jefferson was picked as the president and catastrophe was narrowly averted.

READ MORE: What Was Alexander Hamilton's Role in Aaron Burr's Contentious Presidential Defeat?

12th Amendment: One Vote for President, One for Vice President

WATCH: America 101: Why Do We Have a Two-Party System?

The 1800 election fiasco demonstrated how the existing Electoral College system wasn’t equipped for party-line voting. Just in time for the 1804 presidential election, Congress passed and the states ratified the 12th Amendment, which now instructed Electors to cast one ballot for president and a second for vice president.

“Even though the Electoral College has been one of the most controversial institutions created by the framers—there have been over 700 attempts to amend or abolish it—only a few of those attempts have borne fruit, the 12th Amendment being the first of those,” says Alexander. “That actually changed the practice of the Electoral College considerably.”

In addition to creating separate ballots for president and vice president, the 12th Amendment also limited the field of presidential candidates that could be voted on in a contingent election in the House of Representatives. The amendment states that if no candidate wins the majority of Electoral votes, the election is thrown to the House, but only the top three Electoral vote-getters make the cut.

Andrew Jackson Loses Election After ‘Corrupt Bargain’

That seemingly harmless provision of the 12th Amendment had serious ramifications in the 1824 presidential election, in which four candidates received substantial Electoral votes, denying the front-runner Andrew Jackson the majority required to claim the presidency.

Because only the top three vote-getters moved on to the contingency election in the House, the fourth-place finisher, Henry Clay, was out of the running. But Clay, who was Speaker of the House at the time, allegedly used his influence to get John Quincy Adams elected instead of Jackson.

When Jackson, who had also won the popular vote, learned that Adams named Clay as his Secretary of State, he fumed at what he saw as a brazenly “corrupt bargain” to steal the White House.

“Jackson has the distinction of being the only presidential candidate to receive a plurality of Electoral College vote and a plurality of the popular vote and still not come away with the presidency,” says Alexander. 

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