Skip to Main Content

Twelfth Amendment: About

Amendment XII: The Electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate

Why is the Twelfth Amendment Important?

The Twelfth Amendment cannot be understood outside of the Electoral College, which was set out in the 1787 Constitution as the mechanism by which Americans select their presidents.

There were four crucial aspects of that mechanism. The first was that the electors would vote for two persons (at least one of whom had to be from outside the elector’s home state). The second was that the electors did not differentiate between the two persons as potential presidents or vice presidents. Electors should simply vote for the two persons they viewed as most qualified to become president. The person gaining the most votes (if a majority) would become president. The runner-up (presumably the second-most-qualified person) would become vice president. The third assumption was that the electors—at least following the completely predictable (and unanimous) election of George Washington as our first president—would quite often fail to reach majority approval of a specific candidate; in that case, according to the original Constitution, the decision would be made by the House of Representatives, with each state’s delegation having one vote. The Constitution also provided that the House would choose in case of a tie vote between two candidates each of whom had received a majority of votes. Finally, because the Constitution, until amended in 1933, provided that newly elected representatives would meet for the first time only a full year after election, the choice would be made by a House that would likely include a number of “lame-ducks,” including representatives who had been defeated in the recent elections. All of these features were on display in 1801.

The election of 1800 was one of the most important in American history and, arguably, even in world history, for it represented the first time that an incumbent leader was defeated in an election. The incumbent was John Adams, who had been Washington’s Vice President for two terms and was then elected in his own right in 1796. His Vice President was Thomas Jefferson. This result reflects the desire of the Framers of 1787 to avoid development of political parties and focus indeed on some notion of “best men.” Any such hopes were quickly frustrated, however. Even by 1796, Adams was associated with the Federalist Party, while Jefferson was supported by the Democratic-Republican Party. They ran against each other again in 1800, and both Adams and Jefferson had “running mates,” Charles Cotesworth Pinckney from South Carolina in the case of Adams (and the Federalist Party) and Aaron Burr of New York, for Jefferson. The Federalist Party electors figured out that it was important not to cast both of their votes for Adams and Pinckney, for that would create a tie and, if both got a majority of the vote, throw the election into the House; the Democratic-Republican electors were not so sagacious. They dutifully cast both of their votes for their party’s champions, creating a tie majority vote that forced the House to choose between Jefferson and Burr. 

The tie vote exposed deep problems in the 1787 system. The one-state/one-vote rule had the practical effect of giving Delaware’s sole Representative Bayard, an ardent Federalist, the same voting power as Virginia, then the largest state (and home, of course, of Jefferson).  And what if a state had an even number of representatives who split evening on their choice? In that case, the state’s vote was not cast at all. Given that there were 16 states in the Union in 1801, nine delegations had to agree on their choice. Only on the 36th ballot did Bayard agree to vote for Jefferson and to break the deadlock (by which time at least two Jeffersonian governors, from Pennsylvania and Virginia, were threatening to call out their state militias and order them to march on the new national capitol in Washington, D.C.). Jefferson was peacefully inaugurated on March 4, and the all-important precedent was set for peaceful transfer of power. Yet the original electoral college system was exposed as problematic, and there was widespread agreement that something had to be done. Continue reading from Constitution Center

Link to Adams vs Jefferson by John Ferling in the catalog
Link to A Magnificent Catastrophe by Edward J Larson in the catalog
Link to A Short History of Presidential Election Crises by Alan Hirsch in the catalog
Link to Electoral Dysfunction by Victoria Bassetti in the catalog
Link to Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College by Jesse Wegman in the catalog

Return to The American Government Resource Guide Series