What Is Congress’ Role in a Contingent Presidential Election? (with John Fortier)

By Kevin R. Kosar May 6, 2024

The topic of this episode is, “what is Congress’ role in a contingent presidential election?”

Two centuries ago, America had a contingent presidential election. No candidate got a majority of votes, and thus it fell to Congress to decide who got to be president. Might the United States have another contingent election? Certainly it is possible. Four of the past six presidential elections have been very close. In 2020, had 44,000 voters in Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin picked Trump instead of Biden we would have had a tied election, with each candidate receiving 269 electoral votes.

So what is Congress’s role in a contingent election? How does that work? To answer these questions I have with me my colleague, Dr. John Fortier. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies Congress and elections, election administration, election demographics, voting, and more. John is the coauthor of the books After the People Vote: A Guide to the Electoral College (AEI Press, 2020) and Absentee and Early Voting: Trends, Promises, and Perils (AEI Press, 2006). John also hosts The Voting Booth podcast.

Kevin Kosar:

Welcome to Understanding Congress, a podcast about the first branch of government. Congress is a notoriously complex institution, and few Americans think well of it. But Congress is essential to our republic. It is a place where our pluralistic society is supposed to work out its differences and come to agreement about what our laws should be.

And that is why we are here: to discuss our national legislature and to think about ways to upgrade it so it can better serve our nation. I am your host, Kevin Kosar, and I’m a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington DC.

John, welcome to the podcast.

John Fortier:

Thank you, Kevin. Pleasure to be here.

Kevin Kosar:

Let’s start with a simple question. Why must a presidential candidate get 270 electoral votes in order to become the president?

John Fortier:

There’s a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is that 270 is a majority of the electors that are possible to be cast.

The longer answer is that there was a debate in the Constitutional Convention about how to elect the president, but it came sort of late in the process. And I would say the first thing that they needed to decide is what did Congress look like? And there were all sorts of debates and back and forth before a compromise was reached where essentially the House of Representatives was one that represented the people more broadly. The states would have a number of House representatives based on their population and the Senate would be equal in the states.

Now when coming to the electoral college, figuring out how to elect the president, Two big principles. One, they had decided at this point that they wanted the president to be elected separately from the Congress. Not like a parliamentary system, not something coming out of the Congress. And secondly, that they were going to reflect that compromise in Congress.

And so, the real number of 270, or the larger number of electors that are available, are basically all of the states have two electors for the senators that they have. And then they have a certain number of electors in the House of Representatives based on their, their House delegation and also D.C. votes. So that’s what gets you the total, but it is something of a compromise coming out of a compromise, and this is a majority of the votes that you need.

Kevin Kosar:

So it’s a constitutional thing, it’s not a statutory thing.

So, let’s imagine a scenario for the sake of illustrating the process: pretend it is mid-November of 2024, and we have Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump tied at 269 electoral votes each, or, that they each got fewer than 270 votes thanks to a third-party candidate garnering a handful of electoral votes. What happens next?

John Fortier:

You’re right to point to two scenarios. One would be that there’s a tie in the electoral college and in today’s numbers that would be 269 to 269. Therefore, no one has a majority or perhaps there’s a third party candidate who takes enough electors so that neither of the of the candidates gets to 270. Those are the types of situations which, down the road, are going to get you to a contingent election: one that doesn’t go the regular way of counting the electors.

Now, in the meantime, there are steps. The first, of course, is the casting of candidates. The votes by the electors themselves. We the people vote in November, but we are ultimately electing these electors. They are going to their state capitals in each of the 50 states in the District of Columbia, and they are casting ballots in mid-December. Those ballots are ultimately then sent on to Congress and are then going to be counted on January 6. This is typically a very simple process where votes are counted and in almost every case other than two in our history someone has had a majority of the electoral votes. If that is the case on January 6, we have an official president-elect. That person is going to take office on January 20. We similarly do the same thing with the vice presidential votes from the electors for the vice president.

But if no one person gets 270 electoral votes, then we go into what is sometimes labeled a contingent election. And if all is clear, the House of Representatives will immediately convene to vote for a president, but they’ll do so in an untraditional way. They’ll essentially be voting by state delegation. Each state has one vote and then each state delegation, which could be made up of a bunch of people are somehow going to have to cast that ballot.

Another interesting thing to note—I think that’s important—is you do need to get a majority of states, not just a plurality. You need 26 of the 50 state delegations in the contingent election to elect a president. And there are a number of ways in which you might not get that. One possibility is if there are three candidates, another way is that we might have some delegations that are split and that wouldn’t count to the total—assuming both those people voted according to party. And you might have a case where somebody has 25 delegations, somebody has 23, and two delegations are split. That’s not enough to elect the president, so there’s a potential for a deadlock here, and you don’t necessarily easily get to the 26.

One more thing lurking in the background, of course, is if for some reason that election is deadlocked or doesn’t get to a conclusion, the vice president might be facing the same issue, where the vice president does not have a majority of the electoral votes. In that case, the Senate convenes and votes, but you need to get a majority of the senators to ultimately elect a vice president. Perhaps that might not happen either, but it is more likely that it will not divide in the same way.

You could either have a vice president who’s elected, no president, and get to January 20th and have that vice president take over. It is possible that both of the contingent elections are held up, in which case we’d go all the way to January 20th, and then we’d have to go down the line of succession, meaning the Speaker of the House in today’s line would become president.

So it’s a complicated process, but there is a role for Congress, the House voting very differently than it typically does, and the Senate voting for the vice presidential candidate if there’s no majority for either of these in the case of electing the vice president.

Kevin Kosar:

As a follow up, we have the House having to vote for the president, the Senate having to vote for the vice president. Imagine in the House, we have a state that has 10 representatives—six of them prefer Mr. Trump, four of them prefer Mr. Biden. Does their state then get counted towards the presidential total, or do they have to be unanimous? Do we know?

John Fortier:

This would be likely only the case where there are three, three presidential candidates who are being considered. With the 12th Amendment, the House can only consider the top three candidates. They can’t consider anybody else. And that was important in 1824 when there was fourth major political candidate who couldn’t be considered.

So, if there were a state that had nine reps and it was four to three to two, the House is at times believed that maybe the four would prevail, but we’re not absolutely sure about that. So the House might have a role. I’ll leave it at that.

Kevin Kosar:

You’ve already indicated that we could end up in a peculiar situation where if the House can’t come to agreement, the Senate could—in theory—come to an agreement about who gets to be the vice president. Would that vice president succeed? Would he become the president come January 20th?

John Fortier:

Yes, a couple things. First, we could go back to the 1800 election, one of two elections (1800 and 1824) where we did have this contingent election.

In 1800, the Electoral College looked a little different. We hadn’t passed the 12th Amendment, and it was a bit of a quirk that it was a tie between two people of the same party—Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. They were running like a ticket. And the Federalists didn’t do as well, but they controlled a number of congressional delegations, so this tie really could only be resolved with some of the help of the Federalists. Ultimately, especially with the urging of Alexander Hamilton (who preferred Jefferson to Burr), the Federalists voted for Jefferson. So, I think there is bargaining that’s likely to happen.

If there is a deadlock, and you don’t actually elect the president, most constitutional scholars believe that the president is still sitting there, kind of in waiting. The vice president is going to become the president, but ultimately if the presidential election were later decided—the House came up later in the Congress and decided the election—that president could sort of later come back into play.

Kevin Kosar:

So, when a new Congress first convenes it has no Speaker. One must be chosen before the legislators get sworn in and then move onto the business of the chamber. We had a long drawn out Speaker fight at the start of the 118th Congress in early 2023. What happens to the contingent election if the House deadlocks on choosing a Speaker?

John Fortier:

Of course, what happened in January 2023 doesn’t happen very often. I think many people—while we wouldn’t like to see this—could think of a way of which the House might not proceed with the Speaker. We—in a sense—had an interim Speaker, Patrick McHenry.

There are people who will argue that maybe the House might proceed without a Speaker by some agreement of the people who were elected. I don’t think anybody would prefer that, but I don’t think that by itself it would absolutely prevent the House from going forward.

If you mean that there’s a determined majority in the House to stop the counting on January 6th and not to go to that joint session, it is in the Constitution we’re going to have the joint session.

But I don’t think there’s anything that really stops the court or others would stop and say the house must join this joint session Similarly the Senate it’s the right thing to do. It’s what they’re supposed to do constitutionally But if you really had a determined number of people of majority of people I think you can do a lot of things to muck up the process So I don’t think that’s gonna happen and I don’t recommend it but you know at the end of the day Determined majorities in Congress can do a lot.

Kevin Kosar:

That’s true. Determined majorities can do an awful lot, especially in the House—which is a majoritarian entity—but certainly also true in the Senate. Earlier you’ve referenced the line of succession. For the help of listeners who are not familiar with it, could you talk a little bit about what this is? This is a constitutional thing. Is it a statutory thing? And who’s in this line?

John Fortier:

Yes, it is both a constitutional and a statutory thing. The 12th and 20th Amendments have a process by which the vice president is going to take over for the president if the president dies, resigns, gets impeached and removed, or incapacitated.

That’s a little trickier, but also clarified by the 25th Amendment. There are ways in which the president might not be able to be president and the vice president steps in. That’s clear. Then it says is that Congress may provide a line of statutory line of succession. It says some more specific things like which officer shall be next in line.

Over the years, we’ve had three big different ideas, different laws of presidential succession. The first one had just the president pro tem (in the Senate) and the Speaker. The second one, starting in the 1880s, had a Cabinet succession—just the members of the President’s Cabinet, no members of Congress.

The current line of succession we’ve had since Harry Truman put it in place in the late 1940s is a mix. Today, the Speaker of the House and the President pro tem are the top two people, and then there are all the Cabinet members in the order that the Cabinet’s departments were created.

There has been some constitutional debate over the years of whether or not it is appropriate to have members of Congress in the line of succession. That’s actually something James Madison protested against—saying officer means somebody in the executive branch—even though we did that in the first law.

We at AEI—with Brookings at times—have had a Continuity of Government Commission, and part of the recommendations of that Commission has been to say there might be more sense in having members of the Cabinet be in the line of succession. There are a lot of difficulties of thinking about bringing a Speaker over and being the president either temporarily or for a long time, especially with issues of change of party and the separation of powers issues.

So our current line has the Speaker of the House as next in the statutory line of succession after the vice president. And if for some reason there was no president elected, no vice president elected, and we have to January 20th, the Speaker would be the one who would step in and become president.

Kevin Kosar:

I could see the concerns about having a legislator step into the chief executive role. You mentioned the speaker and the Senate pro tempore, the longest serving Senator, correct?

John Fortier:

By custom. Of course, we didn’t always pick it that way. It’s one of the criticisms of the line that it’s often a very senior elderly senator from the majority party.

One other thing that’s something of a conflict of interest is the case of impeachment.

Let’s say you were to try to remove the president and the vice president, or one of them weren’t there. There’s a bit of a self-interested matter that perhaps the party in the House that’s in the majority might put its own person in place. In fact, there was some rumblings back in the days when Vice President Agnew had resigned, and some saw President Nixon as on the ropes. There were some people saying, “Don’t confirm Gerald Ford because now we can appoint a new vice president with the 25th Amendment.” And if you didn’t appoint Vice President Ford and then impeached Nixon, the president would have been Carl Albert, the Speaker of the House. And there were even some efforts with a faction of the Democratic Party getting significant memos written about what would the Carl Albert presidency look like.

Kevin Kosar:

We can never forget about incentives, can we? And we can never forget Madison’s point that you can’t expect people in politics to be angels.

As a closing question, since amongst your many areas of scholarship are a scholar of continuity of government, when you look at the current process for Congress having to deal with a contingent election, do you think it’s a pretty strong, robust, and steady process, and that we can relax and not be anxious about it? Or is this something that maybe some sort of reforms really should be put in place to just ensure that things go smoothly?

John Fortier:

We are coming up on the 200th anniversary of the last time we’ve had a presidential contingent election in the house—1824 was when we had the last one. It’s a good thing we haven’t had a lot of them. I think with our two party system—which is pretty strong—we’re less likely to have it because we’re not likely to have a case of multiple candidates. It really has to be a 269-269 tie scenario.

That being said, the Electoral College itself is not popular in most public opinion polls. There are people who don’t like the idea of the popular vote being able to go one way and the Electoral College vote the other way. A contingent election is a very obscure procedure, and one that suddenly transforms the House of Representatives into something like the Senate, where the House is voting by states. This is much more unequal than the Electoral College itself, where it could elect a president of the, who didn’t win the popular vote. I’m not sure the American people are going to love seeing this process.

There are some little things around the edges that Congress can do to clarify the rules about how it works, but getting rid of it requires a constitutional amendment. There is an effort out there—a complicated effort which I won’t get into—where a bunch of states band together and agree to cast their electors for the winner of the popular vote, indirectly bypassing the Electoral College. That still is hard to do. You have to get a bunch of states to do it and they’re not at a majority yet. But this provision is in the Constitution, so it’s very difficult to reform.

One point to clarify is the question of did Congress not get a majority of people or did it just deadlock? Those are different situations. Deadlock probably means going to January 20th and the Presidential Succession Act, while not having a majority—where no one gets a majority after all the votes have been counted—goes to this contingent election. So clarifying when you go to what and how it works would be a good thing. But I’m not sure the American people are going to really love seeing this in action if we do end up having it.

Kevin Kosar:

John Fortier, thank you for helping us better understand the role of Congress in a contingent presidential election.

John Fortier:

Thank you, Kevin.

Kevin Kosar:

Thank you for listening to Understanding Congress, a podcast of the American Enterprise Institute. This program was produced by Jaehun Lee and hosted by Kevin Kosar. You can subscribe to Understanding Congress via Stitcher, iTunes, Google Podcasts, and TuneIn. We hope you will share this podcast with others and tell us what you think about it by posting your thoughts and questions on Twitter and tagging at AEI. Once again, thank you for listening, and have a great day.


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