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12th Amendment: Summary & Definition

Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The United States electoral system had significant shortcomings. Learn how the Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution addressed and revamped the original presidential electoral system.

A New Electoral System

The Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution was introduced solely as a much needed upgrade to the presidential and vice presidential electoral system. The presidential elections of 1796 and 1800 proved the original system to be severely flawed. Therefore, Congress, on December 9, 1803, pursued a measure that would simplify the system and strengthen its results. Let's analyze the original electoral system and its inherent imperfections.

Elections Prior to the Twelfth Amendment

Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of the Constitution provided the original framework for the electoral system. This clause provided that each elector was granted two votes. The elector may vote for any two listed candidates as long as both candidates did not reside within the same state (this was a preventative measure to avoid specific states from becoming too powerful). When the balloting ended, the president was the individual who received the most votes from the electors. Subsequently, the individual who finished as runner-up was elected vice president.

What if there was a tie?

If a tie between candidates occurred, then the House of Representatives was given the power to choose a candidate as president as long as a majority of the state legislatures were present to vote. The tie-breaker in the vice presidential election was analogous to the presidential election, except the Senate chose the vice president rather than the House.

The Presidential Elections of 1796 and 1800

The aforementioned elections proved to be problematic when it came to electing a president and vice president under the original electoral system.

In 1796, the presidential election posed the issue of different parties being elected. In other words, John Adams of the Federalist Party was elected as president, while Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republican Party was elected vice president. Obviously, there would be tension between the two officials due to differing party associations as well as emotions over not winning the presidency.

In 1800, the issue of an electoral tie arose. Since most electors voted along party lines, there was a looming issue that the House of Representatives would have to elect the president. Unfortunately, under the original system, the House could take as many ballots as necessary to elect a president. This potentially left the United States leaderless until a final decision was rendered.

Adopting the Twelfth Amendment

In order to cure the ails of the original electoral system, Congress introduced the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment created important changes to the electoral system, while leaving the electoral college untouched.

Electors were given one vote for president and vice president, and the two individuals could not reside within the same territory or state. The rules for breaking a deadlock remained similar, but with a few minor changes. The House of Representatives was only allowed to vote for the three highest electoral gathering presidential candidates. Similarly, the Senate was restricted to voting on the two highest electoral earning vice presidential candidates. However, under the new amendment, election of the vice president required a majority (two thirds) of the Senate to cast a vote.

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