How Did the Process of Electing a President Change After the Election of 1800?

In 1800, it took 36 votes in the House for Jefferson to win.
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Thomas Jefferson eventually won in 1800 after 36 votes in the House of Representatives, which forever changed how presidential elections were held. This election exposed the weaknesses of Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, which instructed how the president was to be elected. After the 1800 election, these weaknesses were addressed by the adoption of the 12th Amendment. This pivotal election also saw the advent of the two-party political system.

1 Electoral System

During the 1787 Constitutional Convention, a dispute arose over how the president was to be elected. Some wanted Congress to elect the executive, some wanted the president chosen by state legislatures, and yet others wanted the president elected by popular vote. As a compromise, it was established that the president would be chosen by electors equal to a state’s congressional representatives. Initially, the choosing of electors and how they would vote was left up to the state legislatures. In the modern era, the electors from each state, except Maine and Nebraska, vote for the candidate popularly chosen by a state’s voters. Electors from Maine and Nebraska cast representational votes based upon the proportion of votes for each candidate.

2 Article II

Until 1804, Article II of the Constitution established how the president was elected. It stated that each state legislature must appoint the representative number of electors and govern the voting process. During an election, these electors must meet and each vote for two persons as president. The person receiving the majority of electoral votes is chosen as president and the second most as vice-president. If more than one candidate has a majority or there is a tie, then the vote goes to the House of Representatives. The turmoil of the election of 1800 made it necessary to alter Article II with the adoption of the 12th Amendment in 1804.

3 Election of 1800

The election of 1800 saw a repeat of the candidates from the 1796 election. The incumbent, John Adams, and his running mate, Charles Pinckney, represented the Federalists; while Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran as Anti-Federalists, or Republicans. When the electors met on December 3rd to cast their votes, it was clear that Jefferson and Burr had won. However, because each elector voted for two candidates, Jefferson and Burr ended up tied with 73 votes each. Adams had 65 votes, and Pinckney had 64. However, the tie between Jefferson and Burr meant the election had to go to the House of Representatives. Even though it was commonly acknowledged that Jefferson was meant to be president and Burr his vice-president, the Federalists saw this as a chance to try to keep Jefferson from winning. After five days and 35 votes, the House finally elected Jefferson on the 36th ballot.

4 12th Amendment

The framers of the Constitution did not foresee the rise of political parties, and after the 1800 election, it became obvious that a constitutional change was needed to avoid future ties between two candidates from the same party. The 12th Amendment, like Article II, still establishes that each elector vote for two persons. However, the elector has to distinguish between a vote for president and a vote for vice-president. Thus it is made clear who an elector wants to be president. This amendment was proposed in 1803 and ratified in 1804. This did not entirely end problems with the electoral system. Just 20 years later, in 1824, neither John Quincy Adams nor Andrew Jackson achieved a majority of electoral votes, and the election went again to the House of Representatives. Although Jackson had a larger share of the popular and electoral vote, Henry Clay threw his support behind Adams, enabling him to win.

John Peterson published his first article in 1992. Having written extensively on North American archaeology and material culture, he has contributed to various archaeological journals and publications. Peterson has a Bachelor of Arts from Eastern New Mexico University and a Master of Arts from the University of Nebraska, both in anthropology, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in history from Columbia College.