Real Life Election Stories: Electoral Tie in 1800

Commentators have been speculating about the possibility of an electoral tie between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.  In light of this possibility, I thought people might like to hear the story of the only other electoral tie in American history.

The Election of 1800

America’s first four presidential elections were conducted under a slightly different procedure than we use today.  Presidential electors could not distinguish between their votes for President and Vice President.  Instead, they cast two ballots. When votes were tallied, the person with the most votes became President; the second place winner became Vice President.  In 1796, this procedure led to a rather unique outcome: John Adams (Federalist Party nominee) was elected President and Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican nominee) was elected Vice President.

The Election of 1800 would further highlight the problems with this combined voting procedure.

Political parties were still relatively new at this point in America’s history, but they were beginning to coalesce and to nominate particular candidates for each office. In 1800, the Democratic-Republican Party nominated Thomas Jefferson for President and Aaron Burr for Vice President. The Federalist Party nominated John Adams and Charles Pinckney. The contest between the Democratic-Republican and Federalist Slates was easily determined: The Democratic-Republican ticket won.  Jefferson’s 73 electoral votes easily defeated John Adams 65 electoral votes. The election should have ended there, but it couldn’t.  Due to the combined voting procedure for President and Vice President, Burr also received 73 electoral votes.  The electors had intended to elect Jefferson President and Burr Vice President, but their intent was irrelevant. Technically, the election had ended in a tie.

Results: Election of 1800

  Party Nominee   For Electoral   Votes House   Votes
Thomas   Jefferson Democratic-  Republican President 73 10
Aaron   Burr Democratic-  Republican Vice   President 73 4
John   Adams Federalist President 65
Charles   C. Pinckney Federalist Vice   President 64

When a tie occurs, the Constitution provides that the election moves on to a secondary election procedure in the House of Representatives. In this election, each state has one vote, regardless of the size of its congressional delegation.

At the time, the House was still controlled by the outgoing Federalist Party. Many of these Federalists wanted to thwart Jefferson’s election and threw their support behind Burr. Others sought concessions from Jefferson in return for their vote.

A stalemate continued for the better part of a week. Jefferson needed nine state votes to win, but he kept coming up one state short. Over six days of voting, 35 ballots were taken. The vote remained stuck: Eight states for Jefferson, six for Burr, and two states divided. Finally, after this 35th ballot, one Congressman decided to change his vote. James Bayard, the only Congressman from Delaware, indicated that he would vote for Jefferson on the 36th ballot, giving Jefferson the nine states he needed to win. His decision broke the deadlock, making his vote for Jefferson unnecessary. On the 36th ballot, Bayard abstained, as did Congressmen from Maryland, Vermont, and South Carolina. Jefferson ultimately won, ten states to Burr’s four.

Following the Election of 1800, the 12th Amendment was soon ratified.  This amendment separates the voting process for President and Vice President: A tie between presidential and vice presidential nominees is no longer a possibility.  If there is to be a tie this year, it will be the first time in history that two presidential candidates have tied in the electoral vote.