Twelfth Amendment


noun

an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1804, providing for election of the president and vice president by the electoral college: should there be no majority vote for one person, the House of Representatives (one vote per state) chooses the president and the Senate the vice president.

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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

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What is the Twelfth Amendment?

The Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution changed the rules of the Electoral College so that electors must cast separate votes for the president and vice president. The Twelfth Amendment also spells out what to do if there is no majority in the Electoral College. It was adopted in 1804.

There have been 27 amendments, or additions, to the Constitution (the supreme law of the U.S. that defines the powers and limitations of the government).

The Electoral College is the group of electors who cast votes for president and vice president. It is made up of a certain number of representatives from each state. These representatives are selected first by political parties and then by voters in the general election. (So, in a presidential election, voters are actually voting for electors who have pledged to vote for a specific president and vice president.)

The Twelfth Amendment, along with the existence of political parties, makes it so that presidents will always have a vice president from their party.

Why was the Twelfth Amendment added to the Constitution?

What if the president and vice president were from rival parties? It would make for a good TV show, but this actually happened. In the 1796 election, John Adams won the majority and became president, while Thomas Jefferson—who was running against Adams!—became vice president. Awkward.

In the 1800 election, Jefferson tied with his own running mate, Aaron Burr. After that, members of Congress decided that changes needed to be made to the Electoral College system that was responsible for these weird, unintended outcomes. So they voted to adopt the Twelfth Amendment in time for the 1804 election.

Before the Twelfth Amendment, Electoral College electors cast two votes for whichever two candidates they wanted to, and the person with the majority became president, while the person with the second-most votes became vice president, regardless of who ran for either position. But along came political parties, and presidential candidates started campaigning with a running mate to be their vice president.

To avoid the election of a president and vice president from different parties, the Twelfth Amendment states that electors must specifically name who they want to be president and vice president. It also says what to do if no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes. In that case, the three presidential candidates who got the most electoral votes would be voted on by the House of Representatives, with each state casting a single vote regardless of their number of representatives. The vice president would be voted on by the Senate and would act as president until the president is chosen by the House.

In practice, the Twelfth Amendment only comes into play in presidential elections. Because the same party picks its candidates for president, vice president, and electors, the president and vice president have always been from the same party since the adoption of the Twelfth Amendment. The Electoral College currently has an even number of votes (538), so a tie or non-majority is still theoretically possible and the rules of the Twelfth Amendment would determine the president and vice president.

Did you know ... ?

A non-majority in the Electoral College has only happened once since the adoption of the Twelfth Amendment. In the 1824 presidential election, Andrew Jackson won the most electoral votes but didn’t win a majority, and the House of Representatives ended up selecting his opponent, John Quincy Adams, as president.

What are some real-life examples of the Twelfth Amendment?

The Twelfth Amendment is frequently discussed when imagining the unlikely event that there would not be an Electoral College majority.

 

Quiz yourself!

The Twelfth Amendment outlines the rules for the election of what positions?

A. U.S. senators
B. U.S. representatives
C. president and vice president
D. Supreme Court justices