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Twelfth Amendment Facts

The Twelfth Amendment was ratified on June 15, 1804. It made some changes to the way the President and Vice President of the United States are elected by the Electoral College.

These changes were the result of two messy presidential elections, and they are still in effect today.

What does the Twelfth Amendment say?

The Twelfth Amendment is one of the longest amendments to the Constitution. You can read the full text here if you’re interested.

presidential elections

The basics are:

Before the Twelfth Amendment, electors would vote for the two people they thought were most qualified to become president.

The person with the most votes would become president, and the runner-up would become vice president.

The Twelfth Amendment changed this process: Now, one vote would be designated for the president. The other would be designated for the vice president.

Before the Twelfth Amendment, if no presidential candidate received a majority vote, the House would choose one of the top five candidates as president.

The person coming in second would be the vice president, unless there was a tie for second place. In that case, the Senate chose the vice president.

presidential vote

The Twelfth Amendment also changed this process: Now, the House would choose the president from the top three choices of the Electoral College.

The Senate would choose the vice president from the Electoral College’s top two choices for the vice presidency.

The Twelfth Amendment is probably unknown to most Americans, but it does have a fascinating history.

A Brief History of the Twelfth Amendment

After the presidential elections of 1796 and 1800 revealed some flaws in the election process, the Twelfth Amendment set out to fix the system.

jefferson adams

1796 Election

In the election of 1796, two of the candidates were bitter rivals: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Political parties were different then than they are now, but John Adams was considered a Federalist. Thomas Jefferson was a Republican or Democratic-Republican. They were political opposites.

In the election, John Adams received 71 electoral votes and Thomas Jefferson received 68 electoral votes. The two rivals became president (Adams), and vice president (Jefferson)!

To make a modern comparison, this would be like the 2016 election ending with Donald Trump as president and Hillary Clinton as his vice president.


1800 Election

In 1800, the election was a rematch between Adams and his own vice president, Jefferson. To avoid the messy outcome of 1796, each of the political parties nominated two candidates.

One was intended to run for president, while the other was intended to run for vice president:

Federalist party – John Adams (president) and Charles Pinckney (vice president)

Democratic-Republican party – Thomas Jefferson (president) and Aaron Burr (vice president)

This time, Thomas Jefferson got 73 electoral votes. So did Aaron Burr.

aaron burr

The Democratic-Republican party (and Jefferson and Burr) knew that the plan was for Jefferson to be president and Burr to be vice president, but the voting system wasn’t set up to recognize this distinction.

Since no candidate had a majority vote, the House of Representatives got to decide the election. Now, the choice came down to Thomas Jefferson or his own running mate, Aaron Burr.

In the end, the Democratic-Republicans did get the outcome they wanted. Thomas Jefferson became president, and Aaron Burr became vice president.

But the elections of 1796 and 1800 made it clear that the current voting system needed some major changes.

voting system

Quick Recap

So, the Twelfth Amendment said that electors would still get two votes.

To avoid a repeat of the Adams-Jefferson incident, one would be designated for president and one would be designated for vice president.

It also said that if no candidate received a majority vote, the House would now choose only the president from the Electoral College’s top three choices for presidency.

The Senate would then choose the vice president from the Electoral College’s top two choices for vice presidency. This would prevent another embarrassing Jefferson-Burr type showdown in the future.

Did these changes work? So far, the Twelfth Amendment has stood the test of time.

voting process electoral college

However, many people argue that the entire Electoral College system should change. They think the president and vice president should be directly elected by popular vote.

‘Popular vote’ means that the votes of individual citizens would determine the president. Whomever the most people voted for would win, without any votes being cast by electors.

Do you think any more changes will be made to the voting process in the future? We’ll have to wait and see!

Other Interesting Facts About the Twelfth Amendment

The election of 1824 was the only time since 1800 that the House had to decide the president because no candidate received a majority vote.

In the election of 1824, Andrew Jackson received the most popular and electoral votes, but he did not get a majority. John Quincy Adams was then elected president by the House.

The presidential elections of 1948, 1968, and 2000 came very close to having to be decided by the House of Representatives.


If the United States becomes a multi-party system ( with significant parties other than just Democrats and Republicans), electoral votes could be so spread out that no candidate receives a majority vote, forcing a decision by the House.

A similar scenario was played out in an episode of the popular TV show Veep, but we have yet to see it in real life.


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