The 12th Amendment to the Constitution requires that presidential and vice presidential candidates gain “a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed” in order to win election. With a total of 538 electors representing the 50 states and the District of Columbia, 270 electoral votes is the “magic number,” the arithmetic majority necessary to win the presidency.
What would happen if no candidate won a majority of electoral votes? In these circumstances, the 12th Amendment also provides that the House of Representatives would elect the President, and the Senate would elect the Vice President, in a procedure known as “contingent election.” Contingent election has been implemented twice in the nation’s history under the 12th Amendment: first, to elect the President in 1825, and second, the Vice President in 1837.
In a contingent election, the House would choose among the three candidates who received the most electoral votes. Each state, regardless of population, casts a single vote for President in a contingent election. Representatives of states with two or more Representatives would therefore need to conduct an internal poll within their state delegation to decide which candidate would receive the state’s single vote. A majority of state votes, 26 or more, is required to elect, and the House must vote “immediately” and “by ballot.” Additional precedents exist from 1825, but they would not be binding on the House in a contemporary election. In a contingent election, the Senate elects the Vice President, choosing one of the two candidates who received the most electoral votes. Each Senator casts a single vote, and the votes of a majority of the whole Senate, 51 or more, are necessary to elect. The District of Columbia, which is not a state, would not participate in a contingent election, despite the fact that it casts three electoral votes.
Although contingent election has been implemented only once each for President and Vice President since the 12th Amendment was ratified, the failure to win an electoral college majority is a potential outcome in any presidential election. Some examples include an election closely contested by two major candidates, one in which one or more third-party or independent candidacies might win a portion of the electoral vote, or one involving defections by a significant number of so-called “faithless” electors.
A contingent election would be conducted by a newly elected Congress, immediately following the joint congressional session that counts and certifies electoral votes. This session is set by law for January 6 of the year following the presidential election, but is occasionally rescheduled. If the House is unable to elect a President by the January 20 inauguration day, the 20th Amendment provides that the Vice President-elect would act as President until the impasse is resolved. If neither a President nor Vice President has been chosen by inauguration day, the Presidential Succession Act applies, under which the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the President pro tempore of the Senate, or a Cabinet officer, in that order, would act as President until a President or Vice President qualifies.
A contingent election would require Congress to consider and discharge functions of great constitutional significance, which could be complicated by a protracted and contentious political struggle that might stem from an electoral college deadlock. This report provides an examination of constitutional requirements and historical precedents associated with contingent election. It also identifies and evaluates contemporary issues that might emerge in the modern context.
“Contingent Election of the President and Vice President by Congress: Perspectives and Contemporary Analysis,” CRS Report R40504, October 6, 2020 (24-page PDF)
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