12th Amendment

The 12th Amendment is the section of the Constitution that maps out the procedure for electing the President of the United States, as well as the Vice President. For example, the 12th Amendment directs the Electoral College on how to vote. It also provides for how many votes are necessary in order to elect both the President and Vice President. To explore this concept, consider the following 12th Amendment definition.

Definition of 12th Amendment


  1. The amendment to the U.S Constitution concerned with electing the President and Vice President of the United States.


June 15, 1804

What is the Meaning of the 12th Amendment?

The 12th Amendment is the section of the Constitution that deals with the elections of both the President and the Vice President of the United States. It also directs the Electoral College on the voting procedure. Prior to 1800, the rules were different.

Electoral College voters could cast their votes, but they didn’t have to specify who they were voting for. This caused immediate chaos, and so the 12th Amendment received an update in 1804 to better clarify how Electoral College voters should cast their ballots going forward.

History of the 12th Amendment

The history of the 12th Amendment begins with the creation of the Electoral College in 1787. The Framers of the Constitution did this as a way to eliminate the divisiveness of partisanship. In other words, instead of relying on political parties to choose the next President and Vice President, the Framers believed the Electoral College, as a collection of the country’s “best men,” would make the decision free from political influence. This is actually why there is no mention of politics or political parties in the Constitution, and why there probably never will be.

The early history of the 12th Amendment declared that the Electoral College should function thusly:

  • Each elector would vote for any two candidates, with one candidate not being from the elector’s home state.
  • The electors did not have to state whether their votes were for the President or Vice President, only that they voted for the individual they felt was most qualified for each role.
  • The candidate who received over 50 percent of the total votes would become President. The runner-up would become his Vice President.
  • If no candidate received over 50 percent of the votes, the House of Representatives would decide the President.
  • If there was a tie among those in second place, the Senate would decide the Vice President.

This was a broken system from the start. While the Electoral College unanimously voted for George Washington in 1788 and 1792, and John Adams as his Vice President, things got decidedly murkier during the election of 1800.

Electoral College

As a matter of the history of the 12th Amendment, the Electoral College underwent a major overhaul after the election of 1800. Otherwise called the “Revolution of 1800,” this election was lengthy, bitter, and complicated, with Thomas Jefferson ultimately triumphing over the incumbent president, John Adams. This election ultimately served as the catalyst for the ratification of the 12th Amendment in 1804.

As mentioned earlier, the 12th Amendment had originally called for members of the Electoral College to submit their votes without having to designate whether those votes were for the President or Vice President. The candidate with the highest number of votes would then become President, and the candidate in second place would become his Vice President. Of course, this led to almost immediate problems, when the Electoral College voted for a president from one political party … and a vice president from the other.

Now, Electoral College voters use separate ballots for the President and the Vice President. The candidate who receives a majority of the votes for each office will become the President or Vice President, provided that number totals the majority of Electoral College voters. If the majority for the President is not enough, the House of Representatives then votes from the top three candidates. If the majority for the Vice President is not enough, then the Senate votes among the top two candidates for that office.

12th Amendment Example Involving an Elector in Alabama

There aren’t too many 12th Amendment examples in the court system. However, one example of the 12th Amendment coming before the U.S. Supreme Court is the matter of Ray v. Blair (1952). In this case, Ben Ray, the Alabama Executive Committee Chairman, was responsible for certifying elector candidates for the upcoming Democratic Primaries in Alabama.

Ray declined certifying Edmund Blair as an elector because Blair had refused to take a pledge saying he would support the nominees. The law did not require Blair to take such a pledge, however Ray had the authority to set the rules insofar as who he could certify as an elector.


Blair applied for a writ of mandamus to force Ray’s hand in certifying Blair as an elector, despite the fact that Blair had failed to fulfill Ray’s requirements. The Supreme Court of Alabama upheld the writ, relying on the 12th Amendment and reasoning that Ray’s requirement re the pledge restricted electors’ freedom insofar as voting in state primaries. Ray applied for a writ of certiorari and, because the Alabama Supreme Court had referred to the Constitution – a federal document – in their decision, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and agreed to hear the case.

U.S. Supreme Court Decision

This ruling is important, as one of the examples of 12th Amendment direction. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately overturned the Alabama Supreme Court’s Decision, reasoning, first, that being a federal court, the U.S. Supreme Court was able to hear the matter. This was because, despite being state electors, these individuals were performing a federal function in helping determine the outcome of national elections.

Further, the Court held that a state has the right to exclude potential electors on the basis that they refuse to pledge to support the nominees of that party. Additionally, the Court decided that the 12th Amendment did not prevent individuals from requiring elector candidates to pledge their support for a nominee, nor does such a requirement deny individuals of their equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment.

In Its Own Words

Specifically, the Supreme Court held, in its Decision:

“A candidacy in the primary is a voluntary act of the applicant. He is not barred, discriminatorily, from participating, but must comply with the rules of the party. Surely one may voluntarily assume obligations to vote for a certain candidate. The state offers him opportunity to become a candidate for elector on his own terms, although he must file his declaration before the primary. Code of Ala. Tit. 17, § 145. Even though the victory of an independent candidate for elector in Alabama cannot be anticipated, the state does offer the opportunity for the development of other strong political organizations where the need is felt for them by a sizable block of voters. Such parties may leave their electors to their own choice.

We conclude that the Twelfth Amendment does not bar a political party from requiring the pledge to support the nominees of the National Convention. Where a state authorizes a party to choose its nominees for elector in a party primary and to fix the qualifications for the candidates, we see no federal constitutional objection to the requirement of this pledge.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Incumbent – An individual, like the President, currently holding a political office.
  • Writ of Certiorari – An order issued by a higher court demanding a lower court forward all records of a specific case for review.
  • Writ of Mandamus – An order from a court that directs an inferior government official to fulfill his official duties or to correct the abuse of his freedom of choice.