February 9, 1825: What Happens if No Candidate Wins the Electoral Vote?

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A Brief History

On February 9, 1825, the United States of America had the only incident (so far) of no presidential candidate winning a majority of the Electoral votes in a presidential election, forcing the House of Representatives to elect our next president.

Digging Deeper

The presidential election of 1824 had been contentious, which is how these things usually are!  In this election there were four major candidates instead of the usual two.  Presidential elections often have numerous obscure candidates, but only rarely does a third or fourth party candidate garner enough votes to actually win an electoral vote.  Senator Andrew Jackson of Tennessee seemed like the man to beat, and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and House Speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky would provide stiff competition, with Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford rounding out the top 4 candidates.  Other potential major candidates that had withdrawn from the election included Secretary of War John Calhoun and Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson.  A fracture in the major political party of the day had resulted in the extra candidates.

Picture of John Quincy Adams by George P. A. Healy.

Per the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, of the 261 available electoral votes a winning candidate for president would have to win at least 131 of those electoral votes.  If no candidate won at least 131 electoral votes, the presidential vote would be decided in the House of Representatives.  As it was, Jackson got 99 votes in the general election (41.4% of the popular vote) and Adams got 84 electoral votes (30.9% of popular votes).  Crawford snagged 41 electoral votes despite getting 2% fewer popular votes than 4th place finisher Clay with 37 electoral votes.  Meanwhile, John Calhoun cleaned up with 182 electoral votes for vice-president.

Per the provisions of the 12th Amendment, only the top 3 electoral vote receiving candidates were voted on by the House of Representatives.  Henry Clay, Speaker of the House was left out of the running, and as a most vehement opponent of Jackson would prove to be pivotal in swaying the vote to Adams.

Painting of Henry Clay by Matthew Harris Jouett (1788–1827).

John Quincy Adams won the vote in the House of Representatives with 13 states voting his way (87 votes, or 41%) to 7 states for Jackson (71 votes or 33%) while loser Crawford snagged 4 states (54 votes or 25%).  Andy Jackson and his followers were livid!  Claiming fix, foul, rigged, corrupt and every other epithet (Does this fiasco sound familiar?), Jackson had expected to win the election since he had won clear popular and electoral vote pluralities.

The 1824 election was the only time the presidential vote was thrust into the House of Representatives, but as long as we have our current Electoral College system this scenario can happen again.  Andy Jackson got a measure of revenge by winning the 1828 presidential election, and he served as our 7th president for 8 years.

Painting of Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the United States (1829–1837), by Thomas Sully (1783–1872).

Question for students (and subscribers): Should we keep the Electoral College or move to some method of popular vote?  You tell us what you think in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see here and here.

The featured image in this article, a map, was obtained from an edition of the National Atlas of the United States.  Like almost all works of the U.S. federal government, works from the National Atlas are in the public domain in the United States.

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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.