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In the United States, a contingent election is the procedure used in presidential elections in the case where no candidate wins an absolute majority of votes in the Electoral College, the constitutional mechanism for electing the President and the Vice President of the United States. A contingent election for the president is decided by a vote of the United States House of Representatives, and the contingent election for the vice president is decided by a vote of the United States Senate. The contingent election procedure, along with the other parts of the presidential election process, was first established in Article Two, Section 1, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution, and then modified by the 12th Amendment in 1804.
Contingent elections are extremely rare, having occurred only three times in American history, all in the early 19th century. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson was pitted against his own vice-presidential nominee in a contingent election due to problems with the original electoral procedure. In 1824, the presence of four candidates split the Electoral College, and Andrew Jackson lost the contingent election to John Quincy Adams despite winning a plurality of both the popular and electoral vote. In 1836, faithless electors in Virginia refused to vote for Martin Van Buren's vice-presidential nominee Richard Mentor Johnson, denying him a majority of the electoral vote and forcing the Senate to elect him in a contingent election.
In the United States, the president and vice president are indirectly elected by the Electoral College, which (since ratification of the 23rd Amendment in 1961) consists of 538 presidential electors from the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Presidential electors themselves are directly elected on a state-by-state basis. Since the election of 1824, a majority of the states have chosen their electors on a statewide winner-take-all basis, based on the statewide popular vote on Election Day. Maine and Nebraska are the only two current exceptions, as both states use the congressional district method. Although ballots list the names of the presidential and vice presidential candidates (who run on a ticket), voters actually choose electors when they vote for president and vice president. These presidential electors in turn cast electoral votes for those two offices. Electors usually pledge to vote for their party's nominee, but some "faithless electors" have voted for other candidates.
A candidate must receive an absolute majority of electoral votes (currently 270) to win the presidency or the vice presidency. If no candidate receives a majority in the election for president or vice president, that election is determined via a contingency procedure established by the 12th Amendment. In such a situation, the House chooses one of the top three presidential electoral vote-winners as the president, while the Senate chooses one of the top two vice presidential electoral vote-winners as vice president.
Section 3 of the 20th Amendment specifies that if the House of Representatives has not chosen a president-elect in time for the inauguration (noon on January 20), then the vice president-elect becomes acting president until the House selects a president. Section 3 also specifies that Congress may statutorily provide for who will be acting president if there is neither a president-elect nor a vice president-elect in time for the inauguration. Under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, the Speaker of the House would become acting president until either the House selects a president or the Senate selects a vice president. None of these situations has ever occurred. The Constitution's silence on this point could have caused a constitutional crisis in the 1801 contingent election, as the House of Representatives seemed for a time to be hoplessly unable to resolve Jefferson–Burr Electoral College deadlock.
Pursuant to the 12th Amendment, the House of Representatives is required to go into session immediately after the counting of the electoral votes to vote for president if no candidate for the office receives a majority of the electoral votes. In this event, the House is limited to choosing from among the three candidates who received the most electoral votes. Each state delegation votes en bloc, with each state having a single vote. The District of Columbia, which is not a state, does not receive a vote. A candidate must receive an absolute majority of state delegation votes (currently 26 votes) in order for that candidate to become the President-elect. The House continues balloting until it elects a president.
If no candidate for vice president receives an absolute majority of electoral votes, then the Senate must go into session to elect a vice president. The Senate is limited to choosing from only the two candidates who received the most electoral votes. Unlike in the House, senators cast votes individually in this election. Additionally, the 12th Amendment states that a "majority of the whole number" of senators (currently 51 of 100) is necessary for election. The language requiring an absolute majority of Senate votes may preclude the sitting vice president from breaking any tie which might occur, although some academics and journalists have speculated to the contrary.
The 1800 presidential election pitted Democratic-Republican ticket Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr against Federalist Party ticket John Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Under the Constitution as it then stood, before the passage of the 12th Amendment each elector cast two votes, and the candidate with a majority of the votes was elected president, with the vice-presidency going to the runner-up. Each party formed a plan in which one of their respective electors would vote for a third candidate or abstain so that their preferred presidential candidate (Adams for the Federalists and Jefferson for the Democratic-Republicans) would win one more vote than the party's other nominee. Democratic-Republicans failed to execute the plan however, thus Jefferson and Burr tied at 73 electoral votes each; Adams came in third with 63 votes.
The Constitution also mandated that, "if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse [sic] by Ballot one of them for President." Therefore, Jefferson and Burr were admitted as candidates in the House election. Although the congressional election of 1800 turned over majority control of the House of Representatives to the Democratic-Republicans, the presidential election would be decided by the outgoing House, which had a Federalist majority. Even so, under the Constitution, voting to elect the President in contingent elections is done by state delegation, with each state having a single vote. As a result, neither party had a majority because some states had split delegations. Given this deadlock, Democratic-Republican representatives, who generally favored Jefferson for president, contemplated two distasteful possible outcomes: either the Federalists manage to engineer a victory for Burr, or they refuse to break the deadlock leaving a Federalist—Secretary of State John Marshall—as Acting President come Inauguration Day.
Over the course of seven days, from February 11 to 17, the House cast a total of 35 ballots, with Jefferson receiving the votes of eight state delegations each time, one short of the necessary majority of nine. On February 17, on the 36th ballot, Jefferson was elected. Several Federalist representatives cast blank ballots, resulting in Maryland and Vermont's votes changing from no selection to Jefferson, giving him the votes of 10 states and the presidency. This situation was the impetus for the passage of the Twelfth Amendment, which provided for separate elections for president and vice president in the Electoral College.
The 1824 presidential election came at the end of the Era of Good Feelings in American politics, and featured four candidates who would win electoral votes: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay. Andrew Jackson received more electoral and popular votes than any other candidate, but not the majority of 131 electoral votes needed to win the election, leading to a contingent election in the House of Representatives. (Vice presidential candidate John C. Calhoun easily defeated his rivals, as the support of both the Adams and Jackson camps gave him an unassailable lead over the other candidates.)
Following the provisions of the 12th Amendment, only the top three candidates in the electoral vote were admitted as candidates in the House: Jackson, Adams, and Crawford. Clay, who happened to be Speaker of the House at the time, was left out. Clay threw his support to Adams, who was elected President on February 9, 1825, on the first ballot, with 13 states, followed by Jackson with 7, and Crawford with 4.
Adams' victory shocked Jackson, who, as the winner of a plurality of both the popular and electoral votes, expected to be elected president. By appointing Clay his Secretary of State, President Adams essentially declared him heir to the Presidency, as Adams and his three predecessors had all served as Secretary of State. Jackson and his followers accused Adams and Clay of striking a "corrupt bargain". The Jacksonians would campaign on this claim for the next four years, ultimately attaining Jackson's victory in the Adams-Jackson rematch in 1828.
In the 1836 presidential election, Democratic presidential candidate Martin Van Buren and his running mate Richard Mentor Johnson won the popular vote in enough states to receive a majority of the Electoral College. However, Virginia's 23 electors all became faithless electors and refused to vote for Johnson, leaving him one vote short of the 148-vote majority required to elect him. Under the 12th Amendment, a contingent election in the Senate had to decide between Johnson and Whig candidate Francis Granger. Johnson was elected easily in a single ballot by 33 to 16.