February 17, 1801: What Happens if the Electoral College Vote is Tied or No Majority?

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A Brief History

On February 17, 1801, the Presidential election of the United States faced its first major test of the system put in place to elect the President when the Electoral College voted, and the result was that the contest between Thomas Jefferson/Aaron Burr, incumbent President John Adams/Charles Pinckney, and John Jay resulted in a failure of a candidate to earn an electoral majority. The vote for President was then forwarded to the US House of Representatives, and that legislative body voted to make Thomas Jefferson the third President of the United States in what was probably the most convoluted Presidential election in American History.

Digging Deeper

Article II of the US Constitution was created as a compromise measure to appease slave holding states, counting among their populations the vast numbers of slaves in those states, even though those slaves did not have the right to vote. In deference to the non-slave holding states, each slave was counted as 3/5 of a person! This method of counting population was used to figure out the apportionment of US Representatives to Congress from each state (with 1 being a minimum), and the practice of reflecting the population of each state into a representative electoral college was also implemented in the election of the President, instead of a popular vote. If a popular vote had taken place, states with a large slave population would not have the amount of influence their total population would seem to indicate, since the actual population of eligible voters was much smaller than the total population. Each state was to select its own representatives to the Electoral College by whatever means they saw fit, and each state would be represented in the Electoral College by the same number of electors as US Representatives from each state. To be elected President, a candidate would have to receive an actual majority of Electoral College votes. As a side “benefit” to the Electoral process instead of a direct popular vote for President, the Electoral College would supposedly not be swayed by some sort of popular candidate of dubious character that had somehow hornswoggled the public.

John Adams had barely beaten Thomas Jefferson in the 1796 election, and the 1800 election promised to be close as well. Jefferson was his party’s choice for President, with Aaron Burr as Vice Presidential candidate. John Adams and running mate Charles Pinckney represented the Federalist Party. The main differences between the parties of the day were a strong Federal government supported by taxes by the Federalists and a less intrusive Federal government with lower taxes supported by the Democratic-Republicans. After a tortuous counting of votes in each state, communications being only as fast as people could travel by foot or by horse, the results were given to the Electoral College which voted 73 votes each for Jefferson and Burr, 65 votes for Adams, 64 votes for Pinckney, and a single electoral vote for John Jay. With 138 electoral votes available, an actual majority of at least 70 votes were needed to elect a President. When the results came in tied between Jefferson and his running mate, Burr, the election was turned over to the House of Representatives for resolution.

Aaron Burr tied Jefferson in the Electoral College vote.

Even though the runoff election in the House of Representatives was between Jefferson and his own running mate Burr, the Federalists who had lost the election were not inclined to vote for Jefferson, whom they disliked. According to the rules of the time, each of the 16 states would get a single vote as decided by the Congressional delegation of that state. Federalists had a majority in Congress, and of the 16 states, an actual majority of 9 would be needed for a President to be elected. Thus, Jefferson ended up with 8 votes and Burr ended up with 6, with the other 2 votes going to neither! A second ballot was held, this time with no majority winner and balloting went on until 35 votes had been taken with neither candidate getting the needed 9 votes! Finally, on the 36th ballot Jefferson got the actual majority of 10 votes, while Burr got 4 and the 2 remaining state votes went “no result,” meaning Delaware and South Carolina had abstained. Congress had elected Thomas Jefferson as the third President of the United States and Aaron Burr as the Vice President.

Thomas Jefferson from Virginia (D-R)

The 2015 Broadway musical production, Hamilton: an American Musical, featured a song about the election of 1800, in which Alexander Hamilton decries the election of Jefferson and Burr, causing Burr challenge Hamilton to a duel in which Burr kills Hamilton. (This happened in real life, the serving Vice President of the United States, Burr, killed by shooting the former Secretary of the Treasury and Senior Officer of the Army, Hamilton, in a duel precipitated by Hamilton’s denouncing of Burr as a candidate for Governor of New York in the 1804 gubernatorial election of New York. Oddly enough, Hamilton had worked quite hard to undermine Adams in the 1800 election and had helped Jefferson and Burr to assume the Presidency/Vice Presidency. Burr became a political outcast, although he was not prosecuted for the illegal duel that resulted in Hamilton’s death. In 1807, Burr was tried for treason, though he was acquitted. Burr died in 1836, a failed politician, a failed developer of the West, and a failed businessman.

Alexander Hamilton fights his fatal duel with Vice President Aaron Burr.

Jefferson went on to win reelection in 1804 Presidential election, this time with George Clinton (not the master of Funk) as his Vice President. Jefferson is often remembered as one of our greatest Presidents, and has a place on Mount Rushmore and a major memorial in Washington, D.C. Adams did not reenter politics after leaving the Presidency, and lived to the ripe old age of 90, dying on July 4, 1826, the same exact day that Jefferson died!

Jefferson’s gravesite

Because of the chaos created by the election of 1800, in 1804 the 12th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified making the electoral vote for President and Vice President separate from each other. In the history of US Presidential elections, 5 times the winner was not the person receiving the most popular votes, most recently Donald Trump, who had lost by about 3 million popular votes to Hillary Clinton, though winning the electoral vote. Only one serious challenge to the Electoral College system has been mounted (1969-1971) despite often expressed dislike of the system. Only twice (1800 and 1824) has the Presidential election gone to the House of Representatives for resolution.

Question for students (and subscribers): Should the United States retain the Electoral College system of electing our President and Vice President? Should we instead have a direct popular vote? Should a simple majority or an actual majority be necessary for a presidential candidate to win the election? Please give us your thoughts and opinions on these contentious subjects so elemental to our democracy in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Ferling, John. Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800. Oxford University, 2005.

Larson, Edward. A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign. Free Press, 2008.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.