Congress in the Archives will feature monthly staff posts on our blog. Today’s post comes from Jessie Kratz.
The Twelfth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that after a presidential election the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate meet to count the electoral votes. On February 12, 1913 the House and the Senate met in a joint session to count the votes from the 1912 presidential election. The major candidates in the election were the unpopular incumbent President William Howard Taft (Republican Party), former President Theodore Roosevelt (Progressive “Bull Moose Party”) and New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson (Democratic Party). Wilson handily defeated Taft and Roosevelt, winning 435 of the 531 available electoral votes. Wilson also won 42% of the popular vote, while his nearest challenger, Roosevelt, won just 27%. Eugene Debs, who had run on the Socialist ticket, won an impressive 6% of the popular vote but failed to receive a single electoral vote.
1912 Electoral Tally, 2/12/1913, SEN 62A-L1, Records of the U.S. Senate
Why do we have the Electoral College? Our Founding Fathers worried that even qualified citizens (generally white, male landowners) wouldn’t have the information necessary to make a truly informed decision.
So they decided to give the States the authority to appoint educated, well-read Electors to vote on behalf of their citizens. As the Constitution makes clear, the States elect the President and Vice-President, individuals don’t.
The Electoral College is managed by the Federal Register, part of the National Archives. You can learn more by visiting our website and watching our new video that explains how the votes actually get counted.
Image: Tally of the 1824 Electoral College Vote, 02/09/1825 (ARC 306207)
Tally of the 1824 Electoral College Vote, 2/9/1825, Records of the U.S. Senate (ARC 306207)
By the election of 1800, the nation’s first two parties were beginning to take shape. The Presidential race was hotly contested between the Federalist President, John Adams, and the Democratic-Republican candidate, Thomas Jefferson. Because the Constitution did not distinguish between President and Vice-President in the votes cast by each state’s electors in the Electoral College, both Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr received 73 votes.
According to the Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, if two candidates each received a majority of the electoral votes but are tied, the House of Representatives would determine which one would be President. Therefore, the decision rested with the lame duck, Federalist-controlled House of Representatives. Thirty-five ballots were cast over five days but neither candidate received a majority. Many Federalists saw Jefferson as their principal foe, whose election was to be avoided at all costs. But Alexander Hamilton, a well-respected Federalist party leader, hated Burr and advised Federalists in Congress that Jefferson was the safer choice. Finally, on February 17, 1801, on the thirty-sixth ballot, the House elected Thomas Jefferson to be President.
The tie vote between Jefferson and Burr in the 1801 Electoral College pointed out problems with the electoral system. The framers of the Constitution had not anticipated such a tie nor had they considered the possibility of the election of a President or Vice President from opposing factions - which had been the case in the 1796 election. In 1804, the passage of the 12th Amendment corrected these problems by providing for separate Electoral College votes for President and Vice President.
For more information about the Electoral College, please visit the Federal Register’s U.S. Electoral College webpage.
Electoral vote tally, 2/1/1801, Records of the U.S. Senate