Constitution: Twelfth Amendment

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The electoral college system prescribed by Article II, Section 1 of the original Constitution required the states to certify electors to cast two votes for president. The person receiving the most votes won the office, and the runner-up became vice president. This system broke down in the late 1790s with the emergence of loosely organized Federalist and Democratic Republican Parties. In the election of 1796, Federalist John Adams won the presidency and his rival, Thomas Jefferson, won the vice presidency. Jefferson organized opposition from his office, effectively working to undermine Adams's administration from within.

This partisan spirit motivated both Federalists and Democratic Republicans to direct electoral votes only to party candidates in the election of 1800. Several states, notably Democratic Republican Virginia and Federalist Massachusetts, also adopted winner-take-all systems that guaranteed their choice for president all their electoral votes. Federalist electors split their votes between John Adams and one of several other Federalist candidates, while Republican electors split theirs evenly between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The Democratic Republican victory produced a tie that threw the election into the narrowly Federalist House of Representatives. On 11 February 1801, Congress began casting ballots for the office of president, working against the 4 March deadline for the inauguration of the president. Many Federalists sought to deny Jefferson the presidency by elevating Burr—even though the Democratic Republicans had clearly intended Jefferson to be president—but they did not control enough state delegations to do so. On 17 February on the thirty-sixth ballot, Jefferson finally achieved a majority.

Democratic Republicans were determined not to allow this situation to occur again. Several state legislatures, including Vermont and New York, forwarded resolutions in 1802 to Congress proposing an amendment to the Constitution requiring the states to hold district elections for presidential electors and that electors designate one vote for president and the other for vice president. Many Federalists had supported a similar amendment before 1800, but because the electoral college gave some advantages to the minority party, many Federalists now moved to block the amendment.

After the 1802 elections, the Republicans held large majorities in both the House and the Senate. Despite unified Federalist opposition, Democratic Republicans in the House mustered enough support to pass a proposed amendment on 24 October 1803. The Senate ignored the House and passed its own version, which narrowly achieved a two-thirds majority on 2 December 1803. The Senate proposal required that electors designate their ballots for president and vice president. In the event of no clear majority in the electoral college, the proposed amendment reduced the list of candidates the House could consider to no more than three. If a majority of the state delegations in the House could not choose a president before 4 March, the office would go to the person elected as vice president. The House approved the Senate's measure by the slimmest of margins on 9 December 1803, and adopted a joint resolution with the Senate on 12 December requesting that President Jefferson transmit the proposed amendment to the states for ratification.

Thirteen of seventeen states needed to ratify the amendment to put it into effect, and this process proceeded quickly. By early February, eight states had ratified. The amendment encountered opposition in the Federalist strongholds of Delaware, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, all of which rejected the amendment. New Hampshire became the thirteenth state to ratify on 15 June 1804.

See alsoDemocratic Republicans; Federalist Party .


Currie, David P. The Constitution in Congress: The Jeffersonians: 1801–1829. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Kuroda, Tadahisa. The Origins of the Twelfth Amendment: The Electoral College in the Early Republic, 1787–1804. West-port, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

H. Robert Baker

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Constitution: Twelfth Amendment

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Constitution: Twelfth Amendment