The Twelth Amendment

by Michaela Crawford Reaves, Ph.D.
California Lutheran University

The Electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate; — the President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted; — The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. [And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President.]* The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.

*Superseded by section 3 of the 20th amendment.

The election of 1800 is often called the “Revolution of 1800” because the Federalist Party, led by President John Adams, was replaced by the opposing Democratic-Republicans and their leader, Thomas Jefferson. Historically the peaceful exchange of power from one party to the other was significant because such changes elsewhere had generally involved bloodshed. The election, however, was anything but strife-free as it witnessed nasty campaigning on all sides. 

That year four candidates ran for office, Adams and Charles C. Pinckney for the Federalists and Aaron Burr and Jefferson for the Democratic-Republicans. Essentially, the four candidates all ran for president as there was no formal definition of a “ticket.” The man with the most votes was to be president and the man with the second highest total was to be vice president. In 1796 that had meant that the two top offices represented two different parties so, in 1800, the two candidates ran as “pairs” with Jefferson and Adams generally considered the presidential candidates.  Because each state elector only had two votes for president and none for vice president, however, Jefferson and Burr tied in the Electoral College with 73 votes apiece, sending the election to the House of Representatives. After political haggling Jefferson became the third president with Burr his vice-president.   

In response, Congress drafted the 12th Amendment to avoid similar issues in the future. It passed on Dec. 9, 1803, and was ratified on June 15, 1804. The 12th Amendment superseded Article II, Section 1, of the Constitution. What the amendment specifically did was change the vote allocation. Instead of two votes by each elector for president, each one now voted once for president and once for a vice president.  

The Amendment successfully addressed the issue of a tie between candidates and the need for a designated vice president. By 1804 the practice of “running on a ticket” began, which continues at the national level today. What the amendment did not address was any discrepancy between the popular vote and the electoral vote.  The issue of conflict between the electoral and popular votes has led to highly controversial elections in 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000. 

Michaela Crawford Reaves, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of History at California Lutheran University. She holds a doctorate from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Reaves specializes in the cultural and social history of the United States.