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The 12th Amendment to the United States Constitution Explained

12th Amendment of the Constitution
The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate;—The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted;—The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in the case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President. note 14 —The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.

Historical Background

George Washington did not approve of political parties. He was not alone in that, and those founding fathers who gathered for the 1787 Constitutional Convention were mostly of a similar mind. Independence had been won and the heady atmosphere was one of unity and purposefulness.

The electoral system they created introduced the Electoral College system of electing the President and Vice President. The Electors represented the states. Every Elector had two votes and could vote for two of the candidates, with one having to be from outside the Elector’s own state. The candidate with over 50 percent of votes cast was elected President while the candidate with the next most votes became vice-president.

This system was created to support the assumption that the nation’s most capable politicians would be elected. They would be elected on individual merit and not because they belonged to a particular political party. The system worked well until the end of George Washington’s second term as president. His vice-president, John Adams, stood for election as President in 1796 and was opposed by Thomas Jefferson. Adams became President and Jefferson was voted in as Vice-President. They held quite different views and failed to work together.

In 1800, they stood against each other again, but this time each had running mates representing their parties. When the Electoral College met, things got messy, and it took the intervention of Alexander Hamilton to ensure that Jefferson was elected President. It took 36 separate votes in the College to achieve that result. Things, it was decided, had to change.

Key measures in the 12th Amendment

The first major reform was to insist that each Elector in the Electoral College cast one of their votes for the President, and the other for the Vice-President. The Electors could not cast both their votes for presidential candidates. In this way, there would no longer be a President and Vice-President from different political parties. The idea of a ‘ticket’ was born.

Another reform was to forbid anyone who was ineligible to stand for President from standing for Vice-President.

The 12th Amendment confirmed the existing arrangements should there be a tie or no majority for one candidate. The House of Representatives is tasked with choosing the President in this situation and the Senate then chooses the Vice-President.

The 12th Amendment also provides a solution if the House of Representatives fails to elect a President under these terms. Should this happen, then the Vice-President will act as President in the same way as they would if the President died or ceased to be President in some other way.


After the difficulties experienced during the 1800 election, it was imperative that a solution be found and adopted quickly. The 12th Amendment actually changed a section of the Constitution and was passed by Congress in 1803 and ratified by the states in 1804. This was just in time for the 1804 election.

The 12th Amendment shows that even the founding fathers were willing to adapt to changing circumstances in American society. Despite George Washington’s opposition to political parties, they were a fact of life by 1796. By making the necessary changes to the Constitution, they paved the way for smooth elections.


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