The 12th Amendment to the United States Constitution Explained

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 on 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 in the


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