Presidential Elections

The Electoral College

What happened in the election of 1800?

By 1800, the fledgling Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties had begun to take shape. The Democratic-Republican Party ran incumbent vice president Thomas Jefferson as its presidential candidate and Aaron Burr as its vice presidential candidate. The Federalist Party ran incumbent president John Adams and diplomat Charles C. Pinckney. However, an equal number of electors voted for both Jefferson and Burr (Adams received sixty-five votes and Pinckney got sixty-four votes). While their intention was to elect Jefferson as president and Burr as vice president, the vote showed that both men were tied for the presidency with seventy-three electoral votes each. Burr seized the opportunity to become president, and the Federalist Party seized the opportunity to help defeat Jefferson and claim the presidency. Amid bitter infighting, the election was thus thrown into the House of Representatives—where each of the states then in existence had one vote—to decide the fate of the election. Before Jefferson finally received a majority of the votes, the House voted thirty-six times, casting ballots over a period of six days. In the end, ten states voted for Jefferson and four states voted for Burr. As the runner-up, Burr became vice president.

The election of 1800 exposed the flaws of the early electoral college system and led to the adoption of the Twelfth Amendment, which was ratified by the states in September 1804. According to this amendment, electors cast separate ballots for president and vice president. The amendment also says that if no candidate receives an absolute majority of electoral votes, then the House of Representatives selects the president among the top three contenders—with each state casting only one vote and an absolute majority needed to claim the presidency.

Aaron Burr was a strong contender in the 1800 presidential election against rival Thomas Jefferson. Federalist Alexander Hamilton, however, schemed to get Jefferson elected, and Burr was so offended by this that he killed Hamilton in their now-famous duel.


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