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Thomas Jefferson Counts Himself into the Presidency

Bruce Ackerman

Yale University - Law School

David Fontana

George Washington University Law School

Virginia Law Review, Vol. 90, p. 551, 2004

The Constitution instructs the President of the Senate to open the ballots submitted by members of the Electoral College, but it provides little guidance when a ballot turns out to be defective. This article provides the first in-depth consideration of two early precedents. Both Vice-President John Adams and Vice-President Thomas Jefferson confronted problems when counting the electoral votes in 1797 and 1801, respectively. Both men were placed in the awkward position of ruling on matters involving an election in which they were leading presidential candidates, but Jefferson's problem was more serious. In 1801, Georgia's electors cast their votes for Jefferson and Burr, but their ballots were in plain violation of the Constitution's explicit formal requirements. If Jefferson had ruled these votes invalid in his capacity as Senate President, one of the Federalist candidates, Adams or Pinckney, might well have emerged victorious from the House runoff required under the Constitution. But Jefferson used his authority as Senate President to exclude his Federalist competitors, restricting the runoff to a two-man race between himself and Aaron Burr. This allowed him to emerge victorious on the thirty-sixth ballot. Rumors of this episode occasionally surfaced during the nineteenth century, but this article presents indisputable documentary evidence demonstrating the irregularity of the Georgia ballot. After telling the story, we appraise its significance both as an act of constitutional statesmanship and as an enduring legal precedent that may guide future Senate Presidents as they confront the electoral college crises of the twenty-first century.

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Date posted: March 25, 2005  

Suggested Citation

Ackerman, Bruce and Fontana, David, Thomas Jefferson Counts Himself into the Presidency. Virginia Law Review, Vol. 90, p. 551, 2004. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=690443

Contact Information

Bruce Arnold Ackerman (Contact Author)
Yale University - Law School ( email )
P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States

David Fontana
George Washington University Law School ( email )
2000 H Street N.W.
Washington, DC 20052
United States
202-994-0577 (Phone)
HOME PAGE: http://www.law.gwu.edu/Faculty/profile.aspx?id=9950

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