Presidency of the United States

United States Presidential Elections, Terms, and Succession

Amendments Affecting Presidential Elections

The Constitution describes the use of the electoral college for electing a president, which has sometimes propelled a candidate who failed to win the popular vote into office. The 12th Amendment corrected language in the Constitution that permitted a tie in electoral votes between two candidates of the same party and ensured that candidates elected as president and vice president would come from the same party.

Citizens cast votes in presidential elections, but the winner of the popular vote, the vote for a U.S. presidential candidate made by qualified voters, is not necessarily declared the winner. Several times in U.S. history, the candidate with the most popular votes has lost the election to the candidate with the most electoral votes. For example, in 1876 Democrat Samuel Tilden won some 264,000 more votes than Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, but Hayes won a disputed election by just one electoral vote, 185 to 184. This has also happened more recently, in the elections of 2000 and 2016. The electoral vote, the votes cast by party electors from each state for president and vice president, determine the result. Each state's number of electors is equal to their number of representatives and senators in Congress. In addition, the District of Columbia has three electoral votes. A presidential candidate needs at least 270 electoral votes out of 538 to win the presidential election.

The people, or electors, who cast the electoral votes form the electoral college. Electors are selected by state party organizations before the popular vote is held. If their candidate wins the most popular votes in the state, that party's electors get to vote in the electoral college. In a few states, the system allows the state's electoral votes to be split between candidates. Electors are generally not bound to vote for a particular candidate. A so-called faithless elector is a presidential elector who does not vote for the candidate that elector is pledged to support. While a handful of electors have cast such electoral votes, they have never affected the actual outcome of an election.

Presidential candidates tailor their campaigns to winning the electoral vote. This electoral focus is made somewhat easier by the fact that the vast majority of states allocate electoral votes using the unit rule, the arrangement by which the candidate who wins the popular vote wins all the state's electoral votes. The exceptions, Maine and Nebraska, give two votes—those corresponding to the state's two senators—to the statewide winner but allocate the other electoral votes to the popular vote winner in each congressional district. Because winning a state's popular vote means gaining all the electoral votes, each state a candidate wins is a prize. All states are not equally available to the two candidates, however. Some states consistently vote for one party or the other. Candidates' campaign efforts are more evident in a swing state—a state in which no political party dominates, where elections are competitive and either major presidential party candidate has a chance to win—than they are in the more traditionally partisan states. On the other hand, partisan alignments can change over time. The southern states were once solidly Democratic but became more Republican in the 1980s. Conversely, the West Coast was for a long time staunchly Republican but has become more Democratic.

Shifting Voting Patterns in Presidential Elections, 1976 and 2016

The elections of 1976 and 2016 show the shift in electoral vote patterns that have taken place since the 1980s, as the South has become solidly Republican, the West Coast has become solidly Democratic, and parts of the Midwest and Southwest show shifting electoral patterns.
As originally written, the Constitution simply said that the individual with the most electoral votes would be president and the runner-up would be vice president. This structure did not take into account the formation of political parties, which arose just a few years after ratification of the Constitution and caused problems in the elections of 1796 and 1800. In 1796 electors gave the presidency to John Adams, of one political party, and the vice presidency to Thomas Jefferson, of a different party. Having a president and vice president from different parties proved awkward and inefficient. In 1800 the majority of electors cast an equal number of votes for Jefferson and Aaron Burr, both of the same party. The members of the House of Representatives, under the Constitution, voted for Jefferson as president and Burr for the second post. Having confronted these two undesirable electoral outcomes, political leaders moved to amend the Constitution. The 12th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1804, establishes that electors are to cast their electoral votes specifically for one individual as president and another as vice president. The new amendment ensured the clear designation of a presidential candidate and running mate and the election of candidates from the same party.

Amendments Affecting Presidential Term and Succession

Three amendments have changed constitutional provisions by stipulating that a presidential term starts on January 20 rather than March 4, limiting an individual to two elected terms as president (one in the case of someone who serves at least two years when succeeding to the office), and specifying the order of succession to the presidency.

The 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933, moved the date of the inauguration of a new president from March 4 of the year following the election to January 20. This shortened the time during which a president would be a lame duck. A lame duck is an officeholder in the final period of office after a successor has been elected. Since they will soon be replaced, lame ducks may have very little influence on legislation—especially if a member of the other party will succeed them. However, lame duck presidents have issued a lot of executive orders and signed executive agreements. Moreover, this is the time when presidents make full use of their power to commute sentences and pardon people.

The 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951, limits a president to two terms in office. In addition, it provides that any person, such as a vice president, who serves as president for more than two years of a term to which someone else was elected may then only be elected to one other term. This provision precludes anyone who succeeds to the presidency from serving as many as 10 years.

The 25th Amendment. ratified in 1967, establishes the order of presidential succession. It sets forth the following:

  • If the president dies or is removed from office, the vice president becomes president.
  • If the vice presidency is vacant, the president nominates someone to serve as vice president, who must be confirmed by a majority in each chamber of Congress.
  • A president who becomes ill or unable to discharge the duties of the office can transfer authority temporarily to the vice president, a provision most often used when a president has undergone a planned surgery.
  • If a president is unable to fulfill the duties of the office but refuses to step aside, the vice president and a majority of cabinet members can determine that the president is unfit and install the vice president as acting president.
  • Should that occur, the president can pronounce him- or herself fit for duty and resume office unless the vice president and cabinet once again declare the president unfit and two-thirds of both chambers of Congress agree.