What Electoral Duty Does the House of Representatives Have?

When no candidate wins a majority of the votes from the Electoral College in an American presidential election, the House of Representatives holds a contingent election to select the winner. Each state delegation has one vote to cast and chooses from the top three finishers.

Only two presidential campaigns have led to contingent elections in the House of Representatives. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ended up in a tie. Even though the House was controlled by a Federalist majority, Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton argued that Burr was a riskier choice than the Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson and Burr were running mates, but the Electoral College did not differentiate between the offices of president and vice president, an oversight that the 12th Amendment corrected in 1804.

The 1824 election also ended up in the hands of the House of Representatives. The two-party system of Federalists and Democratic-Republicans had collapsed, as the Federalists presented no candidates but the Democratic-Republicans fielded five. The top three finishers were Andrew Jackson (with 99 votes), John Quincy Adams (84) and William H. Crawford (41). The Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, finished fourth, but he hated Jackson so much that he put together enough support to bring John Quincy Adams the election. In return, Adams made Clay his secretary of state. Jackson decried this deal as a corrupt bargain, a theme that clouded Adams' term and swept Jackson into office in 1828.