TODAY in HISTORY: The Electoral College explained

Today in 1801, the electoral tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr was resolved when Jefferson was elected President. 

by William “Doc” Halliday

Who did you vote for in the presidential election in November, 2012? Are you sure? I doubt most people answered correctly. In this country, citizens do not vote for a presidential candidate directly. Instead, we vote for electors who are generally pledged to vote for a particular individual. Usually, the political parties nominate electors at each state party convention or by a vote of the party’s central committee for each state.

Even the date of the presidential election is different than most people think. The President is not elected on the first Tuesday following the first Monday as most voters believe. The president is actually elected on Jan. 6 of the year following the casting of votes by the general population.

John Adams, second president of the United States of America.
John Adams, a member of the Federalist Party was elected in 1796 as second president of the United States of America.

When you vote for your candidate in November, you are actually voting for your candidate’s electors. The Electoral College consists of 538 electors. A majority of electoral votes (270) is required to elect the President. Each state’s entitled share of electors is equal to the number of members in that state’s Congressional delegation: one for each member in the House of Representatives plus two for your Senators. Three additional electors were added by the 23rd Amendment in 1961 to represent the District of Columbia.

Most states now have a “winner-take-all” system that awards all electors to the winning presidential candidate. However, Maine and Nebraska each have a proportional representation.

As the constitution was originally written, each elector could vote for two persons. The two people chosen by the elector could not both reside in the same state as that elector. This restriction was designed to keep electors from voting for two so called favorite sons of their own states. Under those original rules, the person receiving the greatest number of votes, provided that number was a majority of the electors, was elected president.

If, under this system, there was more than one individual who received the same number of votes, and that number was a majority of the electors, the House of Representatives would choose one of them to be president. If however, no individual had a majority, then the House of Representatives would choose from the five individuals with the greatest number of electoral votes. In either case, a majority of state delegations in the House was necessary for a candidate to be chosen to be president.

Selecting the vice president by this original method was a much simpler process. Whichever candidate received the greatest number of votes, except for the one elected president, became vice president. The vice president, unlike the president, was not required to receive a majority of votes from the electors. In the event of a tie for second place, the Senate would choose the vice president from those who had tied, with each Senator casting one vote. The constitution did not specify whether the sitting vice president could cast a tie-breaking vote for Vice President under the original formula.

Aaron Burr, left, and Thomas Jefferson.
Aaron Burr, left, and Thomas Jefferson were initially tied as president of the United States.

This original process was flawed, and in the election of 1796, John Adams a member of the Federalist Party was elected president, while Thomas Jefferson a member of the Democratic-Republican Party was elected as vice-president. Members of two different political parties as president and vice president! A circumstance in which the vice president had been a defeated electoral opponent of the president could hamper the capability of the two individuals to work well together.

A resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives for an amendment to the constitution requiring each elector to cast one vote for president and another for vice president. No action was taken on this amendment.

The result was the election of 1800 which produced a tie between Jefferson and his Republican running mate, Aaron Burr. This became a deadlock in the house where the tie had to be broken.

 Two hundred and fifteen years ago today, on February 17, 1801, the electoral tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr was resolved when Jefferson was elected president of the United States. Aaron Burr was elected Vice President by the United States House of Representatives. This election has sometimes been referred to as the “Revolution of 1800,” as vice president Thomas Jefferson defeated President John Adams.

William “Doc” Halliday is an historian and writer. He can be contacted at w_halliday@yahoo.com

William "Doc" Halliday

Historian, Political Commentator

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