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What Happens If There's a Tie in a US Presidential Election?

October 5, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received the same number of electoral votes. A bitterly divided House of Representatives finally chose the winner.

When the Electoral votes were tallied in the 1800 U.S. presidential election—only the fourth election in the young nation’s history—there was a problem. Two candidates received exactly 73 electoral votes, producing the first and (so far) only Electoral College tie in American history.

Thankfully, the Constitution has a contingency plan for tie elections laid out in Article II, Section 1: “[I]f there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse by Ballot one of them for President.”

If only it was that easy. A bitterly divided House of Representatives deadlocked 36 times before it finally picked Thomas Jefferson as the winner of the 1800 election, and in the process laid bare a host of problems with the Electoral College that could only be fixed with a constitutional amendment.

Political Parties Threw a Monkey Wrench in the Electoral College

America 101: What is the Electoral College? (TV-PG; 1:37)

WATCH: America 101: What is the Electoral College?

The framers of the Constitution hoped that political parties wouldn’t be necessary given the limited powers of the federal government, but presidential candidates started coalescing into political factions as early as the 1796 election, the first after George Washington. Almost immediately, the existence of warring political parties created headaches for the Electoral College system.

In the first four U.S. presidential elections, each Elector cast two ballots for president. The candidate who won the majority of Electoral College votes was the president and the second-place finisher was the vice president. In the 1796 election, John Adams won the presidency, but the second-place finisher was Thomas Jefferson, Adams’ arch political rival and now his vice president.

“That was one of the first clues that the Electoral College created by the founders wasn’t working as intended,” says Robert Alexander, a professor of political science at Ohio Northern University and author of Representation and the Electoral College.

READ MORE: What Is the Electoral College and Why Was It Created?

A Tie Between Two Candidates From the Same Political Party

The 1800 tie election made an even stronger case that the Electoral College needed to be fixed. By 1800, two political parties, the Federalists and the …read more


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