The President of the Senate, the Original Public Meaning of the Twelfth Amendment, and the Electoral Count Reform Act

22 Pages Posted: 18 Mar 2024

Date Written: February 21, 2024

Abstract

When Congress convenes under the Twelfth Amendment and the votes of presidential electors are counted, there are three different responsibilities to consider. First, who presides over the joint session where counting takes place, and what is the role of that presiding officer? Second, who counts the electoral votes? Third, who resolves disputes about those electoral votes?

This Essay answers those questions. First, the presiding officer in the joint session is the President of the Senate, and she acts as any other presiding officer of a legislature. She initiates actions pursuant to precedent, parliamentary procedures, and the wishes of the chamber. And that means the chamber—here, the joint session—can constrain the President of the Senate as presiding officer. Congress did exactly that when it chose to further constrain the discretion of the President of the Senate in the Electoral Count Reform Act of 2022. Second, Congress counts electoral votes. The evidence in the text and structure of the Constitution and congressional practice before the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment supports this interpretation. Third, the power to resolve disputes runs with the power to count. And that means Congress also has the power to resolve disputes about presidential electors.

Separating these responsibilities is crucial because it can be too easy to conflate some of these activities, which in turn elides over the distinctions in responsibilities. When the presiding officer acts, she does so not to count votes, but to preside over the joint session and help it proceed according to the rules and precedents set by Congress. The actions she takes may resemble the substantive act of counting. But close scrutiny of the record reflects that the President of the Senate does not count, and has never counted, votes. That is because the power to count resides in Congress, where the Twelfth Amendment lodges that power.

This Essay begins by examining the text of Article II, specifically its Counting Clause. It argues that a change in verb voice in the clause removes the President of the Senate from the role of counting electoral votes. Part II then moves to the original public meaning of the Twelfth Amendment through an interpretation of congressional practices. Majorities of both houses of Congress in 1800 believed Congress had the substantive power to resolve disputes over electoral votes. These details give an important gloss to the Twelfth Amendment, which was ratified in 1804. Part III examines the structure of the Constitution. Crucially, the President of the Senate, not the Vice President, bears the responsibilities in the Twelfth Amendment. While these two terms are often used interchangeably, they are not interchangeable for purposes of understanding the separation of powers and the role of Congress. Part IV concludes with an examination of the newly enacted Electoral Count Reform Act. It identifies the major elements of the Act and it focuses on the Act's decision to expressly narrow the responsibilities of the President of the Senate in the joint session where Congress counts electoral votes. Congress’s decision to define the role of the presiding officer is squarely within its constitutional authority.

Keywords: electoral college, twelfth amendment, presidential elections, vice president, president of the senate, electoral count act, electoral count reform act, ballots, electoral votes

JEL Classification: k00, k1, k10, k19, k3, k30, k39, k4, k40, k49

Suggested Citation

Muller, Derek T., The President of the Senate, the Original Public Meaning of the Twelfth Amendment, and the Electoral Count Reform Act (February 21, 2024). 73 Case Western Reserve Law Review 1023 (2023), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4734176

Derek T. Muller (Contact Author)

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0780
United States

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